‘You’ll get chills down your spine’ as series flies to Toronto

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock comments on the status of Roman Polak and the play of Mitch Marner in overtime.

TORONTO – From the centre of the political universe to the centre of a hockey one.

From a barn hot-boxed with clanging cowbells to Jurassic Park, where the bronzed giants of history straddle a bench overlooking the fierce, lean, unpredictable beasts of now—new blood hungry to chomp another page out of a century-old history book.

The signage plastering Air Canada Centre no longer reads “100” in honour of the Original Six club’s centennial but “001” in recognition of today. A numeral flipped and twisted like expectations and pressure and fans’ stomachs and Roman Polak’s poor ankle in this series. Now a best-of-five, home-ice advantage in the grasp of the eight seed.

From D.C. to YYZ, the too-young-to-get-lagged Maple Leafs jetted happy and victorious in the black as Holy Saturday bled into Easter Sunday.

The team plane didn’t touch Canadian soil until 3:30 a.m., but coach Mike Babcock suspects his double-overtime hero, late-season call-up Kasperi Kapanen, is still buzzing after his shot triggered a Game 5 and cancelled a Chris Brown concert. No chocolate mini eggs necessary.

“It’s got to be a pretty good day for the kid today, I would think,” Babcock said Sunday, prior to going over Game 2’s tape with a team deserving of a day free of practice.

“Kappy can fly. It’s great for Kappy to be rewarded a little bit. That should lead to confidence, and he can become what he was in the American League in the National League over time.”

That would be a point-per-game offensive star.

Kapanen has two goals. Auston Matthews has none.

Forget his shutouts, Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne has two more points than Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews or any member of the top-seed, three-time-champion Chicago Blackhawks. The Anaheim Ducks might be the only playoff team that truly uses home ice to its advantage. And Jake Gardiner is, evidently, the defenceman the Leafs’ coaching staff trusts most.

Everything is happening, and anything can.

“You’re playing at the funnest time of year,” Babcock said. “It’s great. You’d be amazed how much energy you have. So let’s keep on going.”

Yes, let’s.


So as superfan Jason Maslakow wakes up, pops in a fresh dart, and his buddies point their car north, the competition between the NHL’s best regular-season team for two years running and its worst a springtime ago revs as it tenses.

Babcock will watch a couple of rested, right-shot defencemen skate Sunday: top-four rookie Nikita Zaitsev, who has been out a week with a suspected concussion, and eighth man Alexey Marchenko, plucked off waivers from Babcock’s former team for precisely this kind of emergency.

Then the Leafs will decide which one takes Polak’s spot in the lineup for Game 3—a home playoff date four years in the making.

“They’re a little thin on the back end, but they’re managing it quite well,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.

“They’re missing a couple regulars for them in Polak and Zaitsev, but the guys have rallied. The forwards have done a good job of protecting their D.”

Puck support is the arena buzz phrase for it. But Babcock has a way of crystalizing nuanced hockey strategy in pickup-truck terms. Today he says it’s simply better for the Leafs to play defence together than spread out all over the rink.

“The problem with that, you’ve got to skate and skate and skate. We didn’t skate very good in the third and fourth period in Game 1, and it showed,” Babcock said.

[snippet id=3332601]
Oh, how they skated in Game 2.

Led by shooter-turned-shotblocker Matthews, the Leafs’ top nine each skated between 23:44 and 27:49. With Polak and Zaitsev out, Matt Hunwick and oft-maligned seventh man Martin Marincin (“might be our best penalty killer,” Babcock said) topped 30 minutes each.

Gardiner and Morgan Rielly pushed a ridiculous 40 minutes of skating apiece.

“Those two guys got better as the game went on,” Babcock said. “Those guys skate easy. They glide. Some guys chug. They don’t.

“The change in Jake in two years is just incredible. It’s all confidence. He earned it. He trained in the summer. He got better. He feels good about himself. Some of the things he does, you shake your head a little bit. I say to D.J. [Smith, Leafs defence coach], ‘Get those boys back in the barn.’ They’re runnin’ all over the rink. You don’t know what they’re doing.

“But they have the puck.”

On a savoured day of rest and renewal, Babcock was quick to point out that the other team played five periods, too.

“We’ll be fine,” Rielly said post-game, smiling. “We’ve got young legs.”

Yet it did not go unnoticed that Trotz balanced the Capitals’ defence ice time more equally. His roster gives him that luxury. Also, the Capitals surged to a possession advantage towards the climax of both games.

“We had a breakaway. We had a goalpost. We had some really good looks,” Trotz said. “We look at the last minute of regulation, [Frederik] Andersen was looking behind him—Ovi’s shot went right through his legs and out the other side. That’s a game of inches.

“It’s a game of inches, and it’s an emotional roller coaster.”

The underdog’s early objective was to prove they could hang with the big boys, to plant a kernel of doubt in one room and faith in the other. To tighten the gap. That, the Leafs have done.

“Life is way easier when you don’t feel any tightness,” Babcock said. “If you can keep it tight against a high-octane team like that, the puck doesn’t move the same.

“I’ve been the underdog and you’re not supposed to win. I’ve lived when you’re the best team in hockey and you’re supposed to win. And they’re totally different. People can tell you they’re not. I’ve lived it. They’re different. Believe me.”

And believe the favoured coach when he says this, looking toward Game 3.

“It’s going to be fantastic. Toronto, Leaf Nation will be cheering,” Trotz said.

“You’ll get chills down your spine when you’re on the bench for both teams. It’ll be an exciting environment. As the game goes on, the fans will probably be no different than the players. They’re playing every step with you.”

And, yes, Dart Guy will be in the house for Game 3, courtesy of the home side.

Don’t you just love Mondays?

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.