TORONTO — Tuesday’s wildly spirited, high-tempo Toronto Maple Leafs practice culminated in a bizarre and entertaining sight.
As coach Mike Babcock and the rest of the team gathered around centre ice to watch, Auston Matthews — back to the net, ECHL emergency call-up Eamon McAdam between the pipes — assumed the position of rush defender as the defence pairing of Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev drove the net on a series 2-on-1s.
Time after time, Matthews broke up the attack with a reached stick or a crouched knee, and the rare occasion Zaitsev and Gardiner did get a shot off, McAdam made the save. (Watch above.)
After every stop, Matthews held his blade aloft and twirled it, or slammed it on the ice like a beaver tail.
“Who’s next?!” he chided at one point.
Once Matthews and McAdam snuffed out six consecutive odd-man rushes from the defeated D pair, Matthews was swarmed by the other forwards in celebration. They looked like a tyke team winning a championship.
Then, as Gardiner led the end-of-practice stretch, Matthews spun around him, twirling the business end of his stick in the defenceman’s face.
“That’s Jake’s thing,” Matthews smiles. “He likes to do that every time he stops guys, so I thought I’d return the favour today.”
When you’re riding a six-game win streak, a seven-game multi-point streak and feeling like the world is yours, well, even a gloomy practice day in Etobicoke can morph into showtime.
But what the heck was this role-reversing challenge all about?
MATTHEWS: “Jake was always giving the forwards crap for not scoring on 2-on-1s. So, I bet he and Z before practice that he could have six shots and they would score no more than one goal. They took the bet, and they didn’t even score one. It feels great.”
GARDINER: “Our strategy just wasn’t all there. During pre-game skates we always do 2-on-1s, and I tell Matts, ‘You should score on most of them.’ Obviously Zaits and I didn’t do the same today, but we’re also not Auston Matthews.”
MATTHEWS: “Jake just never stops talking about how the forwards should score on every 2-on-1 and how easy it is… how we’re always trying to make the extra pass and the D do a good job of taking it away. So, we let him be the forward today, and he can see how easy it is for himself.”
McADAM: “I don’t know what was going on. I heard there was something about money going to charity. They just said, ‘Stop the puck. Good luck!’”
GARDINER: “I think we had 100 bucks each. Something like that. It’s going to charity.”
MATTHEWS: “Some money and just bragging rights. I wasn’t so confident, but then after the first two, I knew it was game over. They have no idea what they were doing out there. Good thing they’re defencemen.”
GARDINER: “He was pretty good. We were going pretty slow. I think we need a different approach next time. But, yeah, he did well. Good for him.”
MATTHEWS: “Yeah, put it on the line, bet him, and it’s nice to come out on top… He’s kind of a sore loser, but that’s alright.”
GARDINER: “Better luck next time, I guess.”
BABCOCK: “Well, I was impressed they’re making a nice donation to the children’s hospital. That’s what I like about it.”
GARDINER: “Zaits and I will sit down, draw up a strategy and expose his weaknesses… if there are any.”