TORONTO – In his latest Netflix special, standup comedian Dave Chappelle talks about our tendency to rush analysis of a situation we’re too close to see.
“Initial reactions, as we all learn as we get older, are often wrong or incomplete,” Chapelle says. “They call this phenomenon ‘standing too close to an elephant,’ the analogy being that if you stand too close to an elephant, you can’t see the elephant. All you see is its [wrinkly] skin. You gotta step back and give it a better look.”
The way Toronto Maple Leafs stars Nazem Kadri, Frederik Andersen and Mitch Marner spoke immediately after Tuesday’s 2-0 shutout loss to 2018’s best hockey team, it was as if the elephant was in their dressing room, inches from their faces.
“I don’t think we got outplayed at all,” Kadri said.
“We were close to tying it up and having it a shot,” Andersen said.
“Just bad luck,” Marner said. “The puck didn’t go in for us tonight.”
The elephant in this metaphor is a jumbo called the Tampa Bay Lightning, the first NHL club to 60 points, the new standard of consistency, and a force from the net out, leading the league with a plus-53 goal differential, a mark 38 goals better than Toronto’s. At the risk of mixing metaphors, Tampa has a bigger button.
And, by the way, the Bolts have two games in hand and years of battle-tested playoff experience that can’t be cured by a sports-science lab.
Prior to the game, Tampa captain Steven Stamkos was asked why the Lightning are so good on the road. That reporter, too, was focusing too closely on one feature of the beast.
“We’re a good team. We believe in each other. We have a confidence in our ability whether we’re at home or on the road,” corrected Stamkos. Lots of players say similar things, but their tone suggests they’re trying to convince themselves or their questioner. Stamkos just sounded matter-of-fact. “When we had our early successes as a team, we were always lacking that experience. We have that now.
“The puck possession is key to our success.”
In five-on-five action, Tampa outshot Toronto 31-19. Only three Leafs – Kadri, Morgan Rielly and Leo Komarov – posted a positive Corsi for percentage. Only two Tampa players didn’t, and they both were instrumental in the two Lightning strikes.
One of them, Cedric Paquette, opened the scoring 32 minutes into the affair when Chris Kunitz won a puck battle with Andersen behind the Toronto net, a place Andersen should probably not be engaging in puck battles.
“It’s one of those where it’s safer to stay in the net,” Andersen said, “but it happens.”
The goal was Paquette’s first since January of 2017, and he launched the monkey off his back with glee.
Yes, Andrei Vasilevskiy – the 23-year-old who’s on track to capture the Vezina that eluded Ben Bishop – outdueled a mostly-excellent Andersen and posted his league-leading sixth blank sheet, but Tuesday was a more than a case of one goalie bettering the other.
Talk around the Leafs was about how they kept Tampa’s wicked top six off the board, but the visitors shut down Matthews, extended Kadri’s goal drought and locked down their lead with such poise that the outcome felt imminent.
“They got a helluva well-rounded game,” Marner said.
Step back and there are lessons Toronto can glean, tusk to tail, from these Lightning.
How Tampa loaded its roster with so many centremen that natural pivots Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cory Conacher are all playing wing in the top nine. How they patiently developed Vasilevskiy as Bishop’s successor (and signed him before he blew up). How they aggressively sought to remedy a mediocre blue line by trading from forward strength. How they commit to structure and seldom panic or retaliate.
“I think it’s good we [play] them three more times. You want to play good teams. We’ve still got to do more things right and be a little more patient, shorter shifts at times, all the little things,” Babcock said. “You need winning habits.”
Toronto, meanwhile, is still struggling with zone exits, still tinkering with the fringes of its roster. Call-up Frederik Gauthier, whose game Babcock applauded, is trying to steal Dominic Moore’s fourth-line centre spot, and the reappearance of Martin Marincin has put heat on defenceman Connor Carrick‘s job security.
For all the optimism that Toronto has improved upon 2016-17, with Game 41 in the books, the Leafs have the exact same number of standings points (48) as they did a season ago at the halfway point.
Let’s take one more giant step away, shall we?
Tuesday brought the first home game since Johnny Bower’s death a week ago, the goalie’s No. 1 banner hung three feet lower than those of his fellow retirees’ in the Air Canada Centre rafters. Five floors below the iconic goalie’s black-and-white photograph – a smile blown up larger than life – all 20 Maple Leafs warmed up to face the NHL’s Number 1 seed wearing “No. 1 BOWER” sweaters, recognizable only by their strides. Bower to Bower to Bower… stoned by Bower, went the line rushes.
Hearts and programs fell in numerical sync. A subtle, sweet, sombre salute.
“It’s heartbreaking. He was always around this room talking to us,” Marner said. “It’s a big piece of Toronto that we just lost.”
A procession of 27 members of Bower’s family – beginning with wife Nancy, escorted by Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon, and trickling down to great-grandchilden too young to walk – filled a black carpet for a touching tribute pre-game video and a pin-drop breath of silence. “O Canada” singing duties, typically handled by teenage pro Martina Ortiz, fell to the crowd alone and together, a cappella.
Babcock climbed down from his bench to give Nancy a hug and a word as she left the ice.
“The measure of a man is the family he raises. Did you see all those people coming out? It was unbelievable to me,” said Babcock.
“If he touched the Leafs and Leaf fans the way he has, can you imagine what he did for that family and that foundation he probably built with his wife for those people?”
A step back, a better look.