TORONTO — The most charming thing about Jake Muzzin is that he always tells it like it is.
The man is literally incapable of B.S.’ing his way through a conversation.
So when the Toronto Maple Leafs got embarrassed in Pittsburgh 48 hours ago he said as much. He said: “That’s unacceptable. We’ve got to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All that needs to come. I don’t know why that’s not there.”
And when his teammates came back with their most spirited effort of the season here Thursday, a 4-0 win over the same Penguins team that raised an important question about the Leafs?
Well, Muzzin said that, too.
As in: Where has this kind of committed, all-in performance been hiding? Why haven’t we seen more of this from the men in blue and white?
“I don’t know how to say this nicely, so I’m not going to say it,” Muzzin started. “Yeah, sometimes it is frustrating because when we go out with that mindset it should be night and day to us that we’re a totally better team.
“It’s a curse sometimes that we have so much talent because we just sometimes rely on that and we forget about the other aspect of the game.”
What had to resonate strongest inside the dressing room was how Muzzin backed up his harsh critique of Tuesday’s performance. He spent 16:22 on the ice with Sidney Crosby at even strength — more than any other Toronto player — and helped the home team control 76 per cent of the expected goals during that time.
Muzzin also opened the scoring with a bomb from the point, started the breakout under pressure before Kasperi Kapanen’s breakaway goal and picked up his third point of the night on Zach Hyman’s rebound effort in the third period.
That’s why, even after Frederik Andersen took a first-star turn for posting a 24-save shutout, he tipped his hat to the rugged, no-B.S. defender: “Muzz especially I thought was unbelievable today.”
“Just complete,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “He battled, he was competitive, he shot one into the net and found a way to get a couple of assists. Just all over the game. So he was a real leader for us back there.”
It was a strong statement from a player who celebrates his 31st birthday on Friday and is believed to be on the verge of signing a four-year extension with the Leafs.
The biggest reason management is comfortable making that kind of commitment to Muzzin is that it believes he possesses the ability to show a young team the way. That he can help guide them from where they were Tuesday night — down-and-out after losses in Pittsburgh and Buffalo by a combined score of 10-4, and facing a hailstorm of criticism — to where they wound up Thursday with their most complete effort of the season.
“I think everyone responded the right way,” said Muzzin. “We looked at ourselves and we know we had more to give and you’ve got to dig in a little harder. Then most of the guys did that tonight, and this is the result you get when you have that kind of effort.”
Muzzin, like Keefe, left Scotiabank Arena hoping that everyone would take a moment to savour the feeling of satisfaction that comes with this kind of response. They were backed into a corner and fought their way out.
Because with 20 games still to play in the regular season and a neck-and-neck battle underway with Florida for the Atlantic Division’s final playoff spot this has to become the standard for the Leafs rather than a one-off.
“It’s tough,” said Muzzin. “There’s a lot of games in the season, the travel, back-to-backs, injuries. Like shit happens. It’s tough to continually, continually bring that consistency in play, but the best teams in the league, they do it the most consistently.”
He pointed to the Penguins — the NHL’s third-best team in a season where they’ve gone significant periods without Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and a number of either key performers.
Despite that, this was an outlier performance for that group. In fact, it was their most lopsided loss of the season to date.
“They’ve had injuries all year and they’ve had ‘next-man-up’ mentality and they’ve seemed to just continually bring it,” said Muzzin. “And that’s something we’re building to.”
He’s pointing them in the right direction.