TORONTO – Travis Dermott, this is your moment.
Your season started late and sluggish as you recovered from shoulder surgery. Some of us, perhaps unfairly, expected you to jump right up the depth chart and assume the Jake Gardiner role of driving offence from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ back end.
Instead, your 2019-20 path was rockier. More opportunistic. Nothing was given. In terms of Marlies-groomed defencemen on the rise, Rasmus Sandin became the shiny, new fascination of the fan and media conversation.
Yet you quietly rose to the occasion, out of pure necessity, as Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin took turns on injured reserve.
With Muzzin on the shelf, no Leaf logged more minutes in the regular season’s final game, that 2-1 defensive beauty you helped pitch on March 10.
Quietly, you posted the best plus-minus ratio of any Maple Leafs defender (plus-14).
Although your limited offensive production (11 points) will make it difficult to command a home-run contract in your platform year, you took strides to improve your defensive game and own-zone play.
With Muzzin done for the Leafs’ qualifying-round series against the Blue Jackets, you and fellow Calder Cup champ Justin Holl must log major minutes and keep Columbus’ best forwards at bay. Break out fast. Use your speed and quick twitch.
Coach Sheldon Keefe assures you “can handle it when called upon” and that “this is no different” than the times you subbed in admirably in the top four.
Let’s be honest: Keefe — or any coach — would like about three Muzzins in his playoff lineup. Now he has none.
You don’t have to match Muzzin’s hits and blocks and leadership overnight, but you do have to prove that having a Travis Dermott to call upon isn’t so bad either.
Tortorella, Keefe chess match takes new twist
In the playoffs, one loss typically results in at least one lineup change.
For Game 2, it was Keefe who adjusted at game time, placing an ineffective Mitch Marner with Auston Matthews and immediately seeing some better results.
“I was just a lot more competitive with the puck, on the puck, a lot more dialled into my battles and being better consistently all over the ice,” said Marner, who still has another level to reach here. “We worked the puck nicely around (and) we were using our speed.
“The chemistry just kicked right back with (Zach Hyman) as well, and we were making plays. We’ve just got to find ways to get around these guys trying to block our shots.”
For Game 3, John Tortorella is expected to take out defenceman Dean Kukan (who got rocked by a monster Kyle Clifford hit in Game 2) and promote Markus Nutivaara.
How Columbus tries to take advantage of the last change and Muzzin’s absence will be fascinating.
Neither Keefe, who played for Tortorella a lifetime ago, nor Tortorella has any interest in a deep discussion about their own relationship at this point.
But Tortorella did say this about his foe in camp:
“I’m not going to talk about this a long time. I’m sure Keefer doesn’t want to talk about me a long time. I’m talking about it one time. I have tremendous respect for that guy. As far as how we played, he’s one of the most competitive players I’ve coached. I didn’t coach him a lot of games, but when he played, he knew one way — and that was to play hard.
“Did I think he was going to become a coach? I don’t know. I mean, that’s years ago. I know you want the sexy story about this here, but there’s nothing there. The only reason why I’m talking about him now, talking about the other coach, we’re going to be playing in another few days, is because he was an ex-player of mine. I will not disrespect him by not saying a couple of words about him. I’m done with it now.
“Other than this series here, I wish nothing but the best. We’ve had a couple of conversations when he took the job and a few texts here and there, but I’m sure he feels the same way: It’s time to play against one another, and all that stuff gets thrown out the window.”
That’s Marincin’s music you’re hearing
When things go wrong, you call in “The Specialist.”
That is the Maple Leafs’ endearing nickname for Martin Marincin, whose long stick appears to be next up in the removal of Muzzin from the series.
A segment of Leafland would like to see the mobile rookie, Rasmus Sandin, get the call beside Tyson Barrie on the third pair, but Marincin is the safer bet. He brings size, experience and penalty-killing prowess.
Keefe says he may go with seven defencemen and dress Sandin as well but is keeping his cards close to vest. Considering how little he’s used his 12th forward (3:21 in Game 1; 7:36 in Game 2), why not?
It’s obvious Keefe has yet to fully establish a trust or strike a comfortable mix in his fourth line, pulling Frederik Gauthier out for Game 2, watching Jason Spezza commit a penalty on a rare shift and publicly challenging Pierre Engvall.
“Pierre’s a guy that, for me, didn’t have a great camp for us. We think he’s got a lot more to offer. When he’s at his best, we think he makes us a better team, but we haven’t seen him at his best here,” Keefe said. “When Pierre gets back in the lineup, we expect him to really push to stay in the lineup.”
Goalie momentum switches fast
Joonas Korpisalo’s shutout streak stretched a long 96 minutes from puck drop on his first NHL post-season game until Matthews finally cracked the code.
After his costly Game 1 gaffe, it’s now Toronto’s Frederik Andersen who’s turning away everything launched his way.
Of the all the goalies who have appeared in more than one game in the tournament, Andersen — often slapped with the “slow starter” tag — has the best save percentage (.981) and goals-against average (0.50).
He’ll start Game 3 with a shutout streak of 78:55.
“He gives us belief in what we’re doing. And if we crack, he’s going to be there for us. It’s two excellent games by him here now,” Keefe praised. “He gives our guys even more life and energy.
“He’s calm and very much focused and prepared.”
Power plays go bone dry
Keefe has noted the importance of Toronto’s $40 million power-play unit to “take advantage of any special teams that come our way.”
So far, that hasn’t happened.
Not only have the Leafs — the dominant 5-on-5 squad in this series — gone 0-for-6 with the man advantage, but they gave up two scary odd-man rushes the other way Tuesday (Andersen cleaned those up).
The Leafs’ saving grace here is that Columbus has nothing to show for its six power plays either. Both participants in this series share last place in the category among the 24 teams invited into the bubbles.
The trick will be to continue to draw Columbus, one of the least-penalized teams in the game, into taking more minors. Eventually, the star power of Toronto’s PP1 should strike.
“We take a lot of pride in our penalty kill, especially against a good power play like them,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. “We’re going to do our darndest to make sure we don’t let them get anything on the power play and tweak a few things to give us a little bit more success and options on ours. Both teams are looking at it as a difference-maker as this series goes on.”
Blue Jackets executive Rick Nash appeared on Lead Off Thursday morning and stressed how that first power-play goal could have a lasting effect.
“Every hockey player knows that when you get some movement, you get some confidence on the power play, the momentum carries over to the 5-on-5 game,” Nash said.
Savard is a shot-blocker supreme
Tortorella isn’t surprised to see his best stay-at-home defender, David Savard, right back in the NHL’s top-five for shot-blocking (12.51 per 60 minutes).
“Savvy has it tattooed on his head that he’s gonna block shots. That’s a big part of his game,” Tortorella said. “I think we even need to be better.”
Savard threw himself in front of five blasts during Game 1’s victory. Fearless, he and partner Vladislav Gavrikov will once again become an extra layer preventing Toronto from getting pucks through to Korpisalo.
“Those guys will stand in front of any puck and block a shot,” Zach Werenski said. “So, they’re awesome for us.”
Dubois feeling Tortorella’s heat
Quick: What do Pierre-Luc Dubois, Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Gustav Nyquist, Boone Jenner, Alexandre Texier, Liam Foudy and Werenski all have in common?
All have yet to record a point. All are a minus in this series.
Dubois, in particular, caught his coach’s wrath in the heat of Game 2’s loss. No. 1 centremen must make a positive impact, even if they’re 22 years old.
“He’s a young player still learning to understand momentum swings in games, what is needed in certain situations when things aren’t going right for him or the team,” Tortorella said. “It doesn’t surprise me. It happens with all young players.”
Nash chalked the exchange up to two emotional men who love to win and wear their heart on their sleeve.
“When every game means so much, when you don’t have time to take a shift off or take a period off,” said Nash, who skated for Tortorella.
“You know on the bench that in the middle of a game, as coach, that’s probably the closest you’re going to get to a player in feeling the game, feeling the excitement. Tensions run high.”
There is no grey with Tortorella. Players know where they stand, and right now it’s in the crosshairs.
“It’s pro sports,” Nash explained. “There’s battles within the battle. It’s a matter of how you respond.”
That response begins 8 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena.
“We always seem to bounce back the right way,” Foligno assured.