PHILADELPHIA – Saturday set the stage for the type of contest a dominant hockey team wins on cruise control.
Instead, the Toronto Maple Leafs needed 65 minutes, 47 saves and a franchise-record-breaking 11 shootout attempts to escape Philadelphia with two points.
The very average Philadelphia Flyers took the ice weary, enduring their fourth game of the week and second in a span of 24 hours.
The Leafs, however, were waiting with bellies full of gourmet cheesesteak, satiated by three consecutive days of rest and practice and competing for only their second time in seven nights.
“Three days? It’s not often you can get that during a season,” eventual hero Andreas Johnsson said prior to puck drop. “You always feel more fresh. You get some guys to rest and get a practice day and you focus on getting better. Three days is especially good for your mental [state].”
Well, Toronto’s mental state will be in for another round scrutiny after an 11-round, 4-3 shootout win that had no business being such a struggle.
True, captain John Tavares (finger) sat out a seventh-straight game and the club’s most menacing defender, Jake Muzzin, elevated fringe player Martin Marincin to top-four usage, but the oft-critiqued schedule had aligned in the visitors’ favour, Frederik Andersen stood tall on 37 saves (plus another 10 in the skills contest), and there should be enough talent in blue and white to sustain an injury or two.
“We’re 14, 15 games in, and the world’s, like, crashing down on us,” said Auston Matthews, acknowledging the swirl of negativity outside of the Leafs’ bubble. “But we’re staying positive in this room. It’s early. We’re still meshing together. New guys, new faces.”
And new, delicious superstitions.
Friday, Kasperi Kapanen treated himself to the $120 signature cheesesteak at upscale Barclay Prime: cuts of wagyu ribeye topped with foie gras, onions and truffled cheese whiz on a sesame roll, serve with a half bottle of champagne.
“Unbelievable. It was the highlight of my night,” Kapanen beamed.
And after a performance that led coach Mike Babcock to crown him “our best player” and reward him with first crack at 3-on-3 OT alongside Matthews and Morgan Rielly, Kapanen was already mapping out his cheesesteak plans for December’s Philly road trip.
“I think I might have two next time,” he smiled.
Indeed, Kapanen was in rare form.
He opened the scoring in the first period with a searing blaze of speed off a solo rush that spun Philly defender Travis Sanheim inside out and floundering to the ice, temporarily giving the impression Toronto could run away with the thing in a puff of smoke.
“I spent a lot of my time here playing in the halls and watching my dad [Sami] play, so it’s a special place for me,” said Kapanen, after gazing fondly at the seats he and his mom occupied from 2002 to 2008. “Every time I come back here, it’s a lot of emotion.”
But then the Maple Leafs committed four (!) consecutive minor penalties, including two by Jason Spezza, and the Flyers scored on the first two. A well-screened Ivan Provorov point shot and a barely contested Claude Giroux net-drive past Mitch Marner and Cody Ceci injected life into quieted Wells Fargo Center.
“I believe our penalty kill is way better than our numbers show,” Babcock had said pre-game.
Toronto came into the building with the 24th-ranked PK (77.1 per cent), yet with Muzzin unable to help, it’s tumbling again.
“We’ve talked about this, right? So, if I talk to you [reporters] about it, you can bet we’ve talked about it [with the players] and we’ll continue to talk about it,” Babcock said. “When we took the three penalties in a row, we got off-kilter and got on our heels. I didn’t think we really, to be honest with you, got our game back. To me, you’ve got to play longer and harder than the other team, and we were unable to do that.”
Spezza’s long-delayed first goal as a Leaf, however, knotted the affair 2-2 late in the second frame.
“Just whack it at an empty net and happy to see it cross the line,” the veteran sighed. “It was a big goal. I’d been in the penalty box for a couple there and they scored, so it’s nice to get it back.”
Sanheim seized a measure of revenge by following up his own rebound and restoring the Flyers lead in the third, then Marner tied it up again with a beautiful wrap-around goal during a 4-on-4 situation.
Johnsson finally scored the shootout winner after an epic back-and-forth that featured a combined 19 saves by Brian Elliott and Andersen.
“It’s a hell of a shootout performance by him,” Marner said. “That win happens because of his saves.”
And the long succession of free breakaways severely tested the Leafs’ penalty-shot depth chart.
“Some of the guys were getting nervous,” Kapanen said. “I was looking at Goat [Frederik Gauthier] and he wasn’t smiling anymore, and Hollsy [Justin Holl] wasn’t looking too excited either.”
“The most important thing is that we win these games,” Rielly said.
Twenty games, by Babcock’s estimation, is when you should have a handle on a club’s identity, when you should be positioned well in the standings so that you’re not playing the meat of the season “under duress,” fretting about playoff position.
In losing the special-teams battle (again), in surrendering prime scoring opportunities due to soft defensive play, and in getting outshot 40-26 and failing to build on a hot start, Saturday served as another example that these Leafs are still a group finding their way.
One that seemingly can both score at will and suddenly, frustratingly bend to others’.
“We’re not where we need to be. We need to get healthy. We need to get playing at a high level. I think our schedule’s set up good for us now, I really do. So now we gotta get some traction. We gotta know what we are. We gotta know what we hang our hat on,” Babcock said.
“We’ve got to find a game that we can bottle, where that’s our formula, where we can say, ‘This is what we do and do it every day.’”
For now, that bottle is stickered with two labels, warning consumers of its contents: “Explosive” and “Fragile.”