UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It’s not too often the sound of a referee’s whistle is completely drowned out by a crowd chanting "A–hole! A–hole!"
Yet here we were at Nassau Coliseum, where fans of the relentless New York Islanders gathered Thursday to make John Tavares’ return miserable. The home team responded, too, in a bubbling cauldron of hostility that was reminiscent of a playoff game — only it was a game where the Toronto Maple Leafs looked anything but playoff-ready while absorbing a humbling 6-1 defeat.
"I feel bad that we didn’t show up. We didn’t play," said Zach Hyman, spitting truth. "We wanted to win this game for him and we didn’t even give ourselves a chance with all the turnovers and the nonsense that we had."
A performance like this will not assuage concerns in Leaf Nation about the direction of this team with 18 games to go before the moment of truth. The Leafs of this season are measurably stronger than those of last year — with the addition of Tavares and Jake Muzzin, not to mention the growth of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen — but as the calendar flips to March everyone knows that another April meeting with the Boston Bruins is drawing near.
You might remember it from such Leaf Nightmares as Games 1 and 2 last spring, when Toronto was spanked 5-1 and 7-3 after not losing by more than three goals all year before that.
They’ve gotten no such streak going this season thanks to a 5-1 loss at … you guessed it, TD Garden, back on Nov. 10, plus a 4-0 loss at home to the Islanders on Dec. 29 and this tail-between-the-legs performance on a night where they were burning No. 91 sweaters in the parking lot outside Nassau Coliseum.
This was a game to dig deep and find something extra for Tavares. This was a back-to-back, with backup Garret Sparks in goal and a makeshift third pairing of Martin Marincin and Justin Holl. This was the kind of test the regular season doesn’t provide too often.
"It’s a lesson we have to learn," said Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "You do this in the playoffs, you lose, you’re done right away. Period. You’ve got these dress rehearsals and in the meantime, you’ve got to get points to get in the playoffs."
That won’t be an issue for a 39-21-4 team that saw Boston climb a little farther ahead Thursday by beating the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1. What remains to be seen, however, is how a seriously deep lineup bursting with top-end talent handles the grinding, physical style played in the spring.
They got a taste of that against the Islanders, who collapsed around goaltender Robin Lehner and aggressively pursued the puck all over the ice. Barry Trotz threw bangers like Matt Martin and Leo Komarov out for regular shifts — both were Game 7 scratches by Babcock in Boston, remember — and saw his players force numerous neutral-zone turnovers and completely nullify the Auston Matthews line and William Nylander line.
In a game as hotly contested as this one, it wasn’t enough for Toronto to have only the Hyman-Tavares-Mitch Marner trio rolling. They made slick offensive plays and scored two goals — one that came back because of an offside review that swung momentum in the second period — but needed some support.
Instead, they saw teammates repeatedly pleading for referees Wes McCauley and Kendrick Nicholson to make penalty calls that weren’t coming. There were just three power plays, two for Toronto and one for New York, which is going to be a trend as the games get more important.
You’ve got to battle through the sticks and bodies.
And after an evenly played first period, the Maple Leafs let the game slip away by trying to force the issue offensively. It allowed the Islanders to feast on a buffet of odd-man rushes and build a 4-1 lead by the second intermission.
"We got impatient and turned the puck over," said Babcock.
"I think it’s a lesson for us that we need to learn," added veteran Patrick Marleau, echoing a sentiment given over and over to reporters. "We’ve got to play smart, not necessarily too safe, but when the opportunity is there to make a play we’ve got to make it. But we’ve also got to be willing to put the puck in and get our forecheck going and not turn the puck over at their blue line or at our red line and feed their transition.
"If we learn that from this game we’ll be better for it."
They have no choice but to grow from this if they have any hope of becoming the team they aspire to be.
Tavares came to Toronto to chase as Stanley Cup and alienated a fiercely loyal and committed fanbase in the process. The scene here Thursday was unlike any I’ve witnessed during a NHL regular-season game, with fans walking the tight concourse in old blue and orange Tavares sweaters with words such as "Traitor" and "Liar" taped across the name bar.
The rough ride included an endless chorus of chants — "We don’t need you!!!" — and a rubber snake thrown in Tavares’ direction during warmups, plus a sweater when he exited the ice.
"Warmups was great," said Holl. "I was joking with him, I was like ‘At least they forgot."’
Otherwise, the beefed-up security brought in by the Islanders kept everything within acceptable boundaries. But the fans didn’t let up on Tavares at any point when he was on the ice.
"The Coliseum is an intimate place," said Islanders coach Barry Trotz. "I remember as a visitor [the fans] are on top of you. You can hear them and kind of feel like they’re breathing down your neck a little bit."
It was exactly how it feels to go on the road for a tough game in the spring. There can be no excuses in those moments — such as the current injuries to Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott — because it takes a village to survive a championship run.
And, as good as these Leafs are, they still have to prove they can successfully battle through one round, let alone four.
"This is what playoff hockey is like," said Hyman. "It’s loud, fans are in your face, it’s passionate, it’s exciting. We were embarrassed tonight but we’ll learn from it."