TORONTO – The Andreas Johnsson of Saturday night barely resembles the Andreas Johnsson of one month ago.
“I haven’t been good enough. Simple as that,” Johnsson said quietly, after another October morning skate that had followed another scoreless night.
At the time, he was relaying the blunt message he’d been given from the Toronto Maple Leafs bench, a bench that suddenly felt roomier but hotter with William Nylander (contract impasse) and Auston Matthews (shoulder injury) no longer on it.
Easing into his first campaign as full-time NHLer was no longer an option for the Calder Cup MVP. Down two stars, the Leafs were depending on the left winger to locate the confidence, the zip he’d somehow misplaced between Game 7 and training camp.
Check. Frustrate. Skate. Create. Dig in and do all those little things that fuel your big, infectious smile.
“I still have to show myself that I can play in this league,” Johnsson said that day, part motivational speech, part cold realization. “Every time I get to play, I have to prove it.”
Well, in the Leafs’ 6-0 steamrolling of the rudderless Philadelphia Flyers, Johnsson proved it once, twice, and again just to make sure.
The 24-year-old Swede needed all of 12 minutes and 20 seconds of game clock (2:12 in personal ice time) to score a lovely and efficient hat trick on Calvin Pickard, pumping three pucks through the five hole of his fellow Marlies alumni, two off turnovers of his own creation, and making doffed hats shower from the Scotiabank Arena stands.
“It kinda felt unreal. It’s hard to explain. Y’know, I had first goal, then second goal and all of a sudden third one. Like, what’s going on?” Johnsson smiled post-game. “The first one, I seen some other guys do the that. The rest were just instincts.
“That’s how hockey is. Sometimes you miss all your chances. Sometimes you score. This time, everything went in.”
With speed and hands and — what’s this? — confidence, Johnsson had almost singlehandedly chased Pickard himself (Patrick Marleau also scored in Period 1 off an ugly Flyers defensive-zone turnover). In came Anthony Stolarz, the organization’s fourth-string goaltender, for about 48 minutes of mop-up work and damage control.
“I love Picks, but I love Johnny too, so it was hard,” Marlies-turned-Leafs goalie Garret Sparks said. “Not many guys can score three goals in less than 20 minutes and really take over a game like that, and I just think he’s obviously going to benefit from a night like tonight.”
Mitch Marner raved about Johnsson’s foot speed and his willingness, as a skill guy, to block shots. John Tavares described the poise Johnsson used to lure Pickard into opening his wickets as “tremendous.”
As he walked off at the first intermission as the first Leaf to score a first-period hat trick since Wendel Clark did the same back on Oct. 11, 1986, Johnsson paused to speak to a young man in a powder-blue blazer.
Hockey Night in Canada’s Kyle Bukauskas asked the rookie where he’d rate his confidence now, after tucking three consecutive shots.
“I’d say about a 6 out of 10,” Johnsson replied.
— Timothy Liljegren (@Timmeliljegren) November 25, 2018
Considering the Leafs are now 10-0 when drawing first blood, and considering the 2018-19 Flyers look like a squad in disarray, the end result, Justin Bieber might say, was a no-brainer.
Bieber bore witness to Magic Johnsson’s showtime performance, appearing on the Jumbotron in a No. 6 replica sweater and plaid pajama pants and proceeding to make out with new bride Hailey when he realized the camera was on.
Even that display wasn’t as disgusting as the one Mitch Marner put on for his second assist of the night (and 24th of the season), pulling a sick toe-drag and spinning off a hit in the slot to set up partner John Tavares for yet another strike.
“With Mitch, I always follow up the play because you never know the tricks that he has,” Tavares said.
But we could write about those guys any night.
Yes, even with backup Garret Sparks (now 4-1) securing the shutout against his former tandem partner, this Saturday was the property of Johnsson.
“You’re learning how big people are, you’re learning how to hold on to the puck, you’re learning how to stand up in traffic, you’re learning how to play in your own zone. You think you do, but you find out when you get here, you didn’t have any details because the [American] League didn’t need the same kinds of details because the players weren’t as good,” Leafs coach Babcock said.
“The [NHL] takes your confidence away. The players are too good, and you never touch the puck. For Johnny tonight, this is a big step. Now, can he turn it into something and get some rhythm in his game and get going? Ideally, he can.”
Funny thing is, it was supposed to belong to the third-line left wing on the other bench: James van Riemsdyk, making his emotional first trip back to Toronto after six productive seasons here.
Prior to puck drop, van Riemsdyk called his return “like being a stranger in your own house.” And the sincerity both in the home fans’ standing ovation for JVR, honoured during the first TV break, and the player’s gracious salute back was palpable.
“As good a power play guy as you can have in hockey,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of the left winger he lost on July 1.
“Good teammate, good person, was a good Leaf for a long, long time. You miss him, but the problem is, you can’t have them all, right? You’ve got to figure that out.”
Bringing up Johnsson — and giving him time and space to build his own confidence, his own career — is a positive step toward that solution.
“[Johnsson’s] second game in the AHL, he took one of the most vicious elbows I’ve ever seen, and it knocked him cold out,” recalled Sparks, an iconic white towel draped over his shoulders.
“He never let it scare him. He never let it deter him. He recovered. He realized that it’s a different game over here, and he adjusted beautifully.
“Nobody’s taken him out in this league yet, but he’s had his other struggles along the way. We all do. It’s part of being a young player.
“He’s turned a corner, and he’s only going to go up from here.”