TORONTO – Thank St. Patrick for Andreas Johnson, who drove the all boring out of Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
Funny how sports work sometimes. Who knew a garbage-time goal in a lopsided, meaningless game could mean so much?
As Toronto’s Zach Hyman drove the puck wide and began his curl behind the Montreal Canadiens net late in the third period, he spotted his brand-new linemate Johnsson cutting toward the blue paint and put the puck on his tape.
Johnsson — a seventh-round gamble skating in just his second-ever NHL game and first as part of the Maple Leafs’ top six — popped the puck over goalie Charlie Lindgren’s left shoulder, triggering a toothy, twinkly smile still plastered on the Swede’s face 20 minutes after the red light dimmed.
“Just happiness. Happy filled my whole body. Nothing went through my mind. I just screamed and jumped,” says Johnsson, high off emotion. The kid shakes his head at his failure to act like he’s been here before.
“Jumping,” he says. “We’re up 4-0 with five minutes left.”
You can see the NHL schedule makers salivating and giddily rubbing their palms together last summer as they dropped Montreal in Toronto on a St. Patrick’s Day Saturday night.
Century-old rivals, playoff implications, Auston Matthews versus Carey Price, a barn buzzing with hockey fans all rowdy and Irish off one too many green pints… oh, Danny Boy, it could’ve been a doozy.
Instead, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ prime-time 4-0 thumping of the woeful Montreal Canadiens served no purpose as far as wins and losses are concerned, just as the next 10 games will be for both these clubs.
One is written in as the third seed in the Atlantic Division (go ahead, use permanent marker); the other is rubbing four-leaf clovers together, praying the lottery can offer a rainbow if not a pot o’ gold after the most unfortunate season Claude Julien says he has ever coached.
Is it April yet?
Injuries and irrelevance had conspired to suck some life out of the match, a necessary battle of the backups — Curtis McElhinney (career-best third shutout of the season) and Charlie Lindgren (45 saves) both showed fantastic — that was practically devoid of venom.
It’s let’s-not-get-hurt-out-there-boys! time for the Leafs, who for the first game in two years skated down four regulars, including their best centre and No. 1 goalie.
Montreal’s list of wounded is even longer. The Habs dressed eight players aged 23 or younger in this one.
The door was open for recent graduates of the Laval Rocket and Toronto Marlies to shine in this one.
No contest. The poor visitors were steamrolled in a second period where the shot attempts were a silly 51-15. And all four Toronto goals were scored by former Marlies: William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Nazem Kadri, and Johnsson, the unlikeliest success story of the bunch.
That day in 2013 Toronto took a seventh-round flyer on the winger from Gavle, Sweden, Johnsson didn’t even bother staying up late to watch the draft and see if he’d be chosen. Amateur scouts weren’t exactly beating down his door. Why lose sleep being nervous and disappointed?
“I didn’t have high hopes,” he says.
Three full seasons with Frolunda in the Swedish league and two with the Marlies have raised the 23-year-old’s hopes as high as he can leap. Toronto’s farm system, he says, has prepared him wonderfully for this big-stage tryout, afforded to him though the Matthews and Leo Komarov injuries and Toronto’s security in the standings.
In Johnsson’s debut Wednesday, he was crunched hard into the boards by a kamikaze named Alexander Radulov, a purple eye socket and stitched-up brow serving as his welcome-to-the-NHL memento.
Yet Mike Babcock said publicly he expects Johnsson to be a full-time Leaf in 2018-19. Saturday, the coach said the rookie “had so many chances, it wasn’t even funny.”
Seven shots, nine attempts to lead all skaters, for those scoring at home.
“Good for him. He’s on the puck, he’s smart with it, he’s obviously not scared, he’s quick – his first couple of steps are quick – it’s good,” Babcock said. “You want to have as many players as you can.”
The familiarity of the Marlies fraternity has helped ease Johnsson’s transition. He and Nylander talk in Swedish on the bench. Unless Hyman is around, in which case they use English to be inclusive. And Babcock’s support has helped the player embrace a higher-paced game.
“It’s given me more confidence that he believes in me. He says it’s only up to me to show that I can play here next year,” Johnsson says. “Every day: Am I still going to be here? I gotta recover. It’s been a long week, but a really fun week.”
It must be the same for his family, watching Johnsson’s dreams come true from five time zones away. That puck worth jumping about, it might end up on Mom and Dad’s mantle.
“They’ve been staying up,” Johnsson says. “I hope they didn’t fall asleep before the goal.”