DENVER — They were worried about the altitude. The schedule didn’t afford the Toronto Maple Leafs an opportunity to hold an off-day practice in the Mile High City, and Mike Babcock had no trouble spotting the affects of oxygen depletion in his group during a quick 18-minute twirl on the morning of Tuesday’s game.
“If you saw, it wasn’t that pretty,” he said. “Never usually is.”
The plan was simple: Keep the early shifts short, change lines often and don’t get lured into a track meet with the Colorado Avalanche.
It was a plan adhered to by every member of the Leafs except Kasperi Kapanen, who faced no resistance from the thin air or weakened lungs while racing to breakaways on each of his first two shifts.
“It wasn’t a problem,” he said.
No kidding. The Finn’s outrageous speed was the reason Toronto built an early 1-0 lead, with Auston Matthews sending him free on an alley-oop pass for a counter-strike after the Leafs were hemmed in their own zone for a long stretch.
“He can obviously fly,” said Matthews. “He’s tough to catch when you’re toe-to-toe with him, he can really create separation.”
“I think he’s pretty underrated with his skating,” said Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen, who has known Kapanen since they were teenagers. “He’s one of the fastest guys, I think, in the league and really this year, especially, the offence has been there. He’s always been an offensive guy and now he’s showing it in the NHL.”
We’ll assume Rantanen hasn’t spent much time following the media coverage in Toronto, where no player can possibly be underrated for anything.
But the point remains. Kapanen has made a seismic leap in his fourth season of North American professional hockey, going from a guy who had to learn how to kill penalties just to earn a place in the NHL to one playing beside Matthews and Patrick Marleau on the most potent 5-on-5 team in the league.
And, after scoring twice in the 5-2 victory over Colorado, he’s knocking on the door of a 20-goal year — needing just two over the final 26 games to match an accomplishment his father, Sami, reached five times with the Carolina Hurricanes.
That level of production stretches far beyond the expectations of a 2014 first-round pick who had his confidence tested with a few more stints in the American Hockey League than he wanted in recent years.
“Considering that I got cut the couple years before, I was just trying to make the [Leafs] and be a part of it from Day 1. That’s what I did,” Kapanen said recently. “After that, it kind of took off when I started playing with Matty and Patty there. Anything that happens now is pretty much an extra kind of bonus for me.”
His play has been at a consistently high enough level that Babcock’s resisted the urge to reunite Matthews with William Nylander, who continues to skate alongside Nazem Kadri more than two months after his contract dispute ended.
That gives the Leafs better balance across their top nine — something that shines through in a game like the one against the Avalanche, where they spent large stretches in their own zone but still came away with a comfortable win.
They can always find a mismatch.
“That’s our strength,” said Kadri. “That’s how we’re going to compete for a title, I think.”
The Kapanen experiment with Matthews even withstood a recent stretch where he scored once in 17 games — getting interrupted Sunday when he buried a pretty goal off the rush at Madison Square Garden. He followed that up with two more against Semyon Varlamov, helping chase him from the Colorado net before the end of the second period.
“See, to me, Kappy hasn’t missed a beat,” said Babcock. “You guys would see it more than me as far as the scoring part, but to me Kappy’s been very good. Night-in, night-out, works hard. But I think with all players, you like to score.
“Everyone likes to score, but the darn NHL sometimes it doesn’t let you score, though. The bottom line is you can go for weeks sometimes. You don’t want to. But Kappy’s been a good player for us.”
If there’s anything the Leafs players get on the 22-year-old for, it’s his tendency to fire high or wide. Perhaps that explains why Kapanen is now vowing not to try and pick so many corners, a change in approach that helped him produce a career-best seven shots during Saturday’s visit to Montreal.
He’s been on fire ever since.
“Yeah I tell him all the time ‘just hit the net’ because he’s got an unbelievable shot,” said Matthews. “He’s got a really good release and it’s heavy and powerful. A lot of guys give him crap sometimes because he’s notorious for just missing the net a lot.”
He didn’t miss with a bar-down snipe on the early breakaway, nor when he cleaned up a rebound in the second. That came during a rare stint on the second power-play unit and was one of three Leafs goals in a span of 1:49 — each scored with the man advantage.
It was Kapanen’s first power-play marker of the season, to go with 16 scored at even strength and one short-handed. He’s certainly a candidate for more 5-on-4 playing time when the six-game road trip continues Thursday in Las Vegas.
And in the eyes of Rantanen, his former world junior teammate and one of the biggest breakout surprises of this NHL season himself, this kind of performance has been a long time coming.
“Always when I saw him play, even when he was younger, I always said ‘this guy’s going to be a really good player,”’ said Rantanen. “He’s showing it this year. He’s playing with top guys, he’s giving room for them and he’s really skilled with the puck and make some plays and score a lot of goals.
“He’s a goal-scorer. That’s been good for him. I’m glad to see that.”