Scrappy Kasperi Kapanen’s emotion gives Maple Leafs jolt of energy

Toronto Maple Leafs' Kasperi Kapanen takes exception to a hit by Patric Hornqvist, but when Hornqvist declines the invitation to dance, Jared McCann steps in to scrap.

“Enjoy finding your way through difficult times.” —Sheldon Keefe

TORONTO – For the biggest tilt of the Toronto Maple Leafs season, Kasperi Kapanen arrived wide awake and started right on time.

After supplying an emotional punch to his club’s most complete effort of 2019-20, the oft-criticized forward left with a black-and-blue, blood-crusted gash on the bridge of his nose, a smile on his face, and a beautiful top-shelf breakaway goal in his pocket.

The speediest of Maple Leafs had come up just one assist shy of registering the franchise’s first Gordie Howe hat trick in five years, which is like coming up a single short of hitting for the cycle.

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“I guess I was kind of looking for one,” Kapanen admitted, a grin dancing at the corners of his lips.

“I don’t think anybody’s really expecting me to score too many goals or get too many points, but just forecheck and be a presence out there. And that’s what I was trying to do right off the hop — to get in their face and let them know that it’s going to be a long night and that we’re here to play.”

Mission accomplished.

“That’s what he’s capable of doing. That’s the impact that he has on our team,” praised coach Sheldon Keefe, who had benched Kapanen due to an internal accountability issue at the top of the month. “Really great to see that. It gives us consistency all throughout our lineup.”

Seemingly entrenched as a third-line right wing as long as he skates for Toronto, for all his flash and finish, Kapanen may never elevate to star status on this top-heavy roster.

Heck, he played his most inspired minutes of this wildly inconsistent campaign, the Engvall-Kerfoot-Kapanen tilted the ice more severely than any other, the Leafs shut out the Pittsburgh Penguins — his former employer — 4-zip, and he still wasn’t awarded one of the game’s three stars.

Yet when Patric Hornqvist nailed teenaged Rasmus Sandin behind the play, a scrappy Kappy leapt smack in the big Swede’s face and ended up charging into just his second NHL fight, instead, with a willing Jared McCann — sending a jolt through the lineup.

“It shows emotion. That’s what we were looking for,” Alexander Kerfoot said. “We wanted a little more bite to our group, and he’s a fiery guy at times and he had a great game tonight. I thought he was all over the forecheck, he was physical all night, and when you see a guy like him drop the gloves, everyone on the bench gets a boost.

“We just got to kind of find that energy, that bite, that jam that we had tonight and be able to bring that on a consistent basis.”

Added Kyle Clifford: “Kappy’s a fiery guy, and he’s got a competitive spirit in him. You don’t expect him to do that on a nightly basis, but that’s what makes good teams great.”

Kapanen’s tumultuous second full-fledged big-league campaign can be viewed as a microcosm of the Leafs’ as a whole.

There have been frustrating lapses of lethargy, a fumbling to find chemistry, infuriating shifts button-hooking around the perimeter, plus some brutal penalties and giveaways.

There have also been moments of sheer brilliance, breathtaking bursts of speed, and some focused defensive effort.

Pay for a Leafs ticket this winter, and there’s a chance you’ll see the hockey’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters or the Washington Generals. Or both.

Kapanen scored his 12th of the season but has slipped off last year’s 20-goal pace. Surely it’s not lost on the player that his name has been bandied about trade rumours. Half the league had scouts in the building Thursday night. If they were eyeing No. 24, they left impressed.

“That line has really been struggling for us to find an identity and to find some consistency,” Keefe explained.

So, the coach, forever tinkering, threw new acquisition Denis Malgin up with John Tavares and William Nylander and dropped Kerfoot back on the third line.

“We wanted to give him a chance to be a centre and get that line going,” Keefe said. “The wingers, Engvall and Kappy, are two guys we think have more to give us. That happened today.”

It’s been a humbling season for Kapanen, and one can only guess how his struggle to find a niche and recent public shaming has affected his mental state.

Though you could tell he was buoyed by his own contributions in a big moment, maybe proud of that gash on his nose, he remained humble. Kapanen said it was “a little shameful” the way Toronto performed Sunday in Buffalo and Tuesday in Pittsburgh.

“The whole team showed a lot of emotion today, not just me in particular. That’s the outcome when we play like that. When we play with emotion, we stick to the structure and play the Maple Leaf way, that’s what happens.”

A measure of the adversity may be self-inflicted, but Kapanen’s had a rough go this year.

Maybe this is a turning point for him, for the team. Or maybe it’s just a helluva hockey game, a reminder of what he’s capable of.

Friday’s a day off. Kasperi Kapanen has earned the right to sleep in.

“We’re trying to encourage our players to be excited about the challenges and the difficult times,” Keefe said.

“That’s really what it’s about — to enjoy the feeling that you have in your stomach before the game starts. And then also enjoy the feeling after, when the music’s going and everybody’s happy and all that. You know, that’s what this game is about.”

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