TORONTO — “I mean how many times did they lose to Pittsburgh before they finally broke through?” Auston Matthews said, rhetorically, and really isn’t that the entire point here?
All of this hand-wringing about the state of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The daily mini-drama around a team down two-thirds of its top line and incorporating seven or eight new regulars into the fold.
In offering a surprisingly honest critique of where the Maple Leafs are at in their growth cycle, Alex Ovechkin didn’t say anything Mike Babcock hasn’t already said numerous times about his own team.
Or provide an assessment the Leafs players themselves haven’t already considered.
“I think for them, they are still a young group of guys and I hope they’re going to learn,” Ovechkin said before delivering the overtime winner with his second goal in Tuesday’s 4-3 win over Toronto. “It’s up to them how they want to do it and if they want to play for yourself, or if they want to win a Cup, they have to play differently.”
Given who Ovechkin is, and everything he navigated before finally lifting the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy two springs ago, his is probably the ideal voice for a young Leafs core to listen to.
How can you ignore it?
That’s certainly how Babcock viewed the situation. Even while saying “it hurts your feelings probably a little bit,” the Leafs coach didn’t appear remotely offended.
“Well he knows. He lived it,” said Babcock. “He was the guy. Then he figured out: ‘This is what we’ve got to do to win.’ I mean, that’s why when he sees us …
“We talked about this last year: Fun to watch going 100 miles an hour. You’ve got to learn how to play right.”
In Toronto, Ovechkin’s comment seemed to be widely interpreted as a jab. But it should probably be looked at as nothing more than a statement of fact.
This is the sport: St. Louis finally won a Stanley Cup last spring after spending eight years as one of the NHL’s top teams. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s Pittsburgh Penguins endured a six-year run without a championship and then won two in a row. The Ovechkin-led Capitals lost seven times in Game 7 before coming from behind in four-straight series to raise the Cup in 2018.
Then they lost in Game 7 of the first round again last spring.
“I think he knows because he lived it,” said Babcock. “But if you look at Steve Yzerman, he lived it. A lot of the guys, they live it until they’re 30. You’ve got to decide whether you want to wait until you’re 30 or do you want to figure it out now?
“It’s the ultimate team game and you’ve got to sacrifice individual rights for team rights.”
There’s a good reason why the Leafs have carried a simple mandate since starting their rebuild five years ago. They’ve endeavoured to build a team capable of sustaining its window of contention as long as possible because there’s no telling how many lottery tickets it’ll take to claim the big prize.
It’s no secret that the success of 2019-20 will be measured in April (not to mention May and June, if necessary). That’s partly what’s made the fervour around a sluggish 6-5-3 start in October so head-scratching.
For those interested in signs, the Leafs brought a much more committed, urgent game during the few brief stretches the referees allowed Tuesday’s visit by Washington to be played at 5-on-5.
Matthews was a standout, with a takeaway-turned-primary-assist on Andreas Johnsson’s first-shift goal. He also chased down Travis Boyd to break up a short-handed breakaway and scored twice on his own — bringing his total to 11 goals in 14 games this season.
Toronto’s extra point was lost by taking two penalties in overtime, which limited Matthews to just 21 seconds of the four minutes played in the extra period.
Ovechkin froze the clock with a hammered one-timer past Frederik Andersen.
But still there were signs of life from the home side, which held an edge in expected goals at evens and basically sawed Washington off in shot attempts despite playing most of the night without Jake Muzzin, who suffered a charley horse.
There was even some pushback, with Frederik Gauthier getting in Tom Wilson’s face following a late hit on Tyson Barrie and Matthews scrumming with Garnet Hathaway after the whistle.
It certainly didn’t look like a group of individuals playing only for their own interests.
“Everybody in Toronto is in a rush all the time,” said Babcock. “I get it but that’s not pro sport; that’s not reality. You’ve got to keep building and building and building and steady on the rudder, and keep going through things.
“Matchups, and learning to play with the lead, and learning how to be patient and not turn the puck over, and shift length – and all the things that you’re just a good player and you haven’t had to deal with, you’ve got to deal with them if you want to win in the National Hockey League.”
They’re not there yet, but that’s not the same as saying they’re never going to get there.