KANATA, ONT. – Forty minutes deep, the Toronto Maple Leafs had blown yet another lead. They’d carelessly surrendered another short-handed goal with the first power-play unit on the ice.
Down 3-1, this talent-flush team with high hopes and loftier expectations had seemingly buried itself and was on its way to another frustrating loss to the cellar-dwelling Ottawa Senators.
Then Patrick Marleau — a temporary "A" stitched to his sweater with Morgan Rielly injured — rose to his feet, brought the players together in the second intermission, reminded the Leafs what kind of team they are — "and a couple other things," Mitch Marner says.
The exact words used by the 38-year-old with 1,541 games and 1,106 points under his blades don’t matter, Connor Carrick explained.
"It’s the action of it. The message was, ‘enough is enough,’ " said Carrick, fresh off firing the 4-3 winner.
"There was a sense of urgency in the third. A bite, a hunger. It’s hard to identify, but you know what it is when you see it."
What Leafs fans hope they are seeing — and Mike Babcock has seen it before — is a tipping point. The moment when players take ownership of their own room, when the coach stops being the captain.
"My favourite thing about this whole thing is the internal accountability that seems to be coming. When you’re a team with no expectation, there’s none of that. There just isn’t," Babcock said.
"As you create a real good team over time, the players take over that accountability thing. Sometimes it’s not kind to one another, but it’s real. And living in the real world is important in our league.
“You’ve got to make each other accountable. I don’t think that means you’ve got to have a big song and dance, but you’ve got to make sure the unacceptable is unaccepted. It’s hard to stand up. It’s way easier to go through life and never say nothing, wear beige and no one ever knows you’re alive.”
Before this, their much-anticipated first regulation victory of 2018, the Leafs had shoveled themselves into a four-game funk.
Kicked off Thursday night by heated goalie Frederik Andersen, ironically the only Leaf who speaks publicly at a lower volume than Marleau, there were great calls among the players — some public, others less so — to snatch back their swagger, to dig in.
Toronto did just that with their finish Saturday, snapping a four-game string of losses despite playing without their best defenceman.
Zach Hyman opened the scoring in Period 1 with his first in 10 games after some diligent puck-battling by Auston Matthews in the slot.
But the Senators — roundly atrocious in the middle frame this season — returned from the first intermission inspired. Any momentum the visitors had gathered in their high-chance first frame swung the other way.
First it was Erik Karlsson, who skated through illness and nervous headlines, sniping a power-play wrister past Andersen’s glove while Matthews served a rare penalty.
Then it was Mike Hoffman streaking on a tic-tac-toe rush through the neutral zone and triggering a laser over Andersen’s blocker. The kind of shot that can instantly up a man’s trade value. Another Toronto lead gone poof into the ether.
Tom Pyatt delivered the most painful blow when the checking winger snapped a shorthanded goal late in the second. As was the case in Philadelphia, it was the Leafs’ first power-play unit, centred by Tyler Bozak, who took the hit.
"We’re going to fix that. We’re not doing that. We’ll put that to bed now," Babcock said, "because that’s ridiculous."
Think the Sens, entering the contest 16 points back of their Ontario rivals, stopped working hard after 20 minutes?
Well, whatever Ottawa drank in the first intermission, the Leafs guzzled in the second break. Marleau played bartender.
"I just think it’s time. We’ve been going through a bit of a skid here. Just working our way out of it, we needed everybody," Marleau said. "You don’t want to have to do that. You want the team to be clicking on all cylinders."
Said Matthews, "[Marleau] is a pretty soft-spoken guy, but when he says something, you better listen up."
Toronto flexed its resolve early in the third, Matthews driving hard to the crease and knocking in his 20th of the season. Marner tied the game on a power play with a pretty cross-crease move on Craig Anderson for his first in 10 games.
"Nice relief," said Marner, who’d been demoted to the fourth line after a sloppy mistake Thursday.
"Go! Leafs! Go!" chants thundered throughout Kanata’s Canadian Tire Centre, a doable drive for both fan bases.
Carrick formed the Leafs’ best possession tandem with rookie Travis Dermott and capped off the comeback to the comeback with a point shot that found twine through traffic midway through the third.
As for the health of top defenceman Rielly, who sat out the first game of the best season of his career, he’ll undergo further evaluation on his upper-body injury Sunday in Toronto.
The Leafs fly home knowing they improved their record against Ottawa in the Babcock era to 9-2.
Surely they’ll take a measure of confidence into Monday’s challenge against Colorado, winners of nine straight. But more importantly, the Hall of Fame free agent Toronto pried out of San Jose with its dangles and dollars, appears invested more than ever.
"He got our team going," Marner said of road dad Marleau. "It’s eye-opening. Nineteen years around the league, he’s seen everything."
Well, not quite everything.