TORONTO – Because the night ended in hushed voices and self-blame, hung heads and bitter regret, you will be forgiven if you’ve forgotten that the last goal authored by the Toronto Maple Leafs was an absolute work of art.
With the score of Game 7 of the Leafs’ first-round playoff series versus the Bruins jammed at threes in the second frame and Boston’s A squad working a power play, a passed puck bobbled over Brad Marchand’s blade and scooted loose in the neutral zone.
Penalty killer Kasperi Kapanen squeezed turbo, zipping outside-in to beat Marchand in a footrace, busted in on a shorthanded breakaway, slammed the brakes and deked Tuukka Rask out of his groin.
The mid-season call-up celebrated with a fist pump that could’ve busted drywall. He won’t say that it didn’t occur to him that he might have punched the series-winner.
“It felt good. It was a 4-3 goal, so I was happy about it,” Kapanen said Friday, after hanging around to fire an extra bucket of pucks following a team scrimmage. “Obviously it didn’t end the way we wanted it to.”
That, you do remember.
Boston responded with four unanswered goals in the third period to win 7-4. So, despite scoring what could’ve been another biggest goal of his life, Kapanen prefers not to call up that highlight or give the club’s miserable final game much thought.
“It’s a bad way to end the season. We were up, and we let it slip through our fingers,” he said.
“That’s in the past. It’s good for us young players to experience that. Hopefully going into next year’s playoffs, we know what to expect.”
Expectations are a funny thing.
Were hockey a true meritocracy and not a business, it probably should not have taken Kapanen until this, his fourth pro season, to become a full-time NHL player.
Since the blue-chip prospect and American League stud did not require waivers to start 2017-18 with the Marlies, however, the fastest member of the organization wowed in the AHL until January, when his talent demanded recall.
So even now, as a presumed lock for a bottom-six slot in the Leafs’ 2018-19 opening-night roster, Kapanen hesitates to count chickens.
“It’s been a long road. Some days have been harder than others,” says Kapanen, who was drafted four years ago by Pittsburgh and arrived in Toronto as the best piece yielded by the Phil Kessel trade.
“I feel like it’s starting to pay off. But training camp is going to be hard, and you never know what happens. I really need to prove to everybody that I belong on the team, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”
As we’ve expounded upon before, the internal battle for playing time among Toronto forwards should be intense, and that’s by design.
Among Leafs forwards, Kapanen ranked 12th in average ice time (11:15) last season, and despite his offensive flashes, virtually all his special teams work will likely remain on the kill. Coach Mike Babcock has yet to tell Kapanen — whose best-case scenario for October would be outdueling Connor Brown for third-line right wing — where he’ll slot.
“That’s for [Babcock] to figure out. Obviously, the top two lines are pretty much set. After that, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m sure he’s going to get the best lineup for the first game of the season. It’ll be interesting to see what the lineup’s at,” Kapanen says.
“I don’t know what to expect, but I’m going to do what I do best, and that’s skating and forechecking and doing everything I can to help the team win.”
He returned to Europe this summer, first to Denmark, where he represented fifth-place Finland at the world championships, then home, where he picked up tabs for his Finnish friends.
“They needed somebody to pay for everything,” Kapanen quips, “so I guess they were excited to see me.”
The 22-year-old also devoted himself to becoming a more complete player. Firing just 1.45 shots per game but scoring 11 times in 68 big-league appearances (post-seasosn included), he wants to shoot more. He’s focusing on his defensive play, too.
But only at the rink.
When Kapanen’s jet-powered skates are kicked off, the son of Sami is in no mood to talk shop.
“My family’s a hockey family,” reminds Kapanen, whose NHL father is the majority owner and GM of the Finnish Liiga’s KalPa. “If they start talking about hockey, I just walk out the room or go on my phone.”
When he reaches for his device, Kapanen might dial up William Nylander, the first friend he texted when he caught wind of the John Tavares signing on Twitter: “Me and Willy talk about Fortnite and Xbox and anything else but hockey. We’re keeping it light.”
Or Finnish-speaking ex-Leaf Leo Komarov, who signed a $12-million deal with the New York Islanders.
“I saw that on Twitter, too. I called him five seconds after. I was kinda like, ‘What are you doing?!’” Kapanan chuckles. “But, nah, I’m happy for him. He wanted to stick in the league. I’m happy he got a good deal. It’s not going to be fun to play against him. I know he was already trying to intimidate me over the phone.
“We lost a Finn, and then I think we got a couple more Swedes, so I don’t really like this setup right now. It’s very bad. Very bad.”
That Kapanen is cracking Swede jokes before training camp instead of walking on pins and needles is good. Very good for Toronto.
“I personally think it’s the best place to play. It’s a lot of pressure, but at the same time, when you play well, fans go nuts and everybody’s behind you,” Kapanen says.
“The best place to play in the world.”