TORONTO – “We’re playing for him.”
Those four words, spoken by Morgan Rielly, pulled into sharp intention the Toronto Maple Leafs’ mission. They will rally around John Tavares, their fallen captain, and not play the victim this spring.
“The singular focus is moving on and trying to play long enough so he can come back and have an impact,” Justin Holl echoed.
Game 2 — a decisive, assertive 5-1 come-from-behind, run-wild-on-top victory over the Montreal Canadiens — was the first step toward that gruelling marathon.
From coach Sheldon Keefe’s curveball of starting the pugnacious Wayne Simmonds for puck drop alongside Auston Matthews’ top line to a power-play voodoo doll punctured by a rare point blast, the Maple Leafs jammed the game to their visitors in a refreshing change of pace from Game 1.
Their leader has become their carrot, and the Maple Leafs suddenly look like a thoroughbred that’s off and kicking mud.
“We had a really engaged hockey team here today, all the way through our lineup,” coach Sheldon Keefe said, proudly, accurately.
While a recovering Tavares himself couldn’t be in the building Saturday, Friday’s news that the star did not suffer any structural damage to his head, neck and spine was a measure of relief to his friends and teammates. They had been forced to play two-and-a-half periods of Game 1 with knots in their stomachs, trauma in their hands and worst-case scenarios in their minds.
But just as Jason Spezza’s voice helped calm a concussed and confused Tavares Thursday during those eons between ice and stretcher, Tavares reached out to his Maple Leafs brethren to reassure. This, only hours removed from suffering car-accident-like trauma.
The captain sent individual phone calls and group texts. He wanted to assure his brothers he was going to be OK.
“Credit to John himself. His leadership of our team despite his situation didn’t stop,” Keefe said. “I thought that really helped put our guys in the right headspace. Of course, we had great concern and fear in that moment, but after he was feeling better, he made sure to communicate to his teammates, and I think that really helped our team push past it. We miss him greatly on the ice. We miss him greatly in the room.
“You’re winning for him. You’re winning for all the guys who don’t get to play. You’re winning for the guy next to you in the room or guy on the bench. There’s all sorts of reasons to compete. We have another one here to make sure that everybody is on board and doing their job.”
Anyone who has hung around this spinning orb long enough has learned that when you get blindsided by tragedy, a fork appears in your road.
A single unfortunate event can spiral you off course; it can become the reason (or maybe the excuse) for an unravelling. Alternatively, it can steel you. Make you push harder.
The Maple Leafs, Canada’s favourite, looked a shell of themselves after Tavares departed Game 1 under a silent cloud of uncertainty. And, honestly, who could blame them?
So, when Montreal struck first again in Game 2, surely fans fretted that things were tumbling off the rails.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi opened the scoring in Period 1. He banged home a Joel Armia rebound after some fierce Canadiens forechecking and some scrambly defence by Toronto’s newfangled Tavares-free second unit of Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Foligno and William Nylander. Kotkaniemi, a healthy scratch in Game 1, busted a 24-game goal drought with the marker.
From there, however, the Maple Leafs woke up, took hold and never let up.
Spezza struck back less than five minutes later after an excellent, prolonged cycle shift from the Leafs’ new-look third unit that allowed for an O-zone line change. Spezza hopped off bench, snagged a Zach Bogosian pass intended for Wayne Simmonds and, without hesitation, fired it clean past Carey Price’s short side.
In Period 2, Auston Matthews — a beast at both ends all night — scored off the rush by slamming in a Justin Holl rebound off the pad of Price.
Three consecutive Leafs power-plays tilted the ice toward Price, who succumbed to a point shot from Rasmus Sandin, now establishing himself as the top unit’s quarterback.
The rookie’s first playoff goal triggered an ill-advised goalie-interference challenge by Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme. Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared throughout Scotiabank Arena during a seemingly simple review. Ducharme was charged with a delay-of-game penalty and essentially hemmed in his own players for an additional two minutes.
“I have the last call always, but we were all in agreement we needed to challenge,” Ducharme said.
Montreal’s third-period push came up short, and the Maple Leafs cruised to victory with a second power-play goal from Nylander. This marked the first time since March 3 in Edmonton that Toronto had scored twice in one game with the man-advantage.
Afterward, the Canadiens called attention to the lopsided power-play count. Toronto earned six to Montreal’s one.
“We had the puck the entire second period,” Keefe said, “That really, I think, caused some fatigue on the other side. We were able to really get at them that way. I think that was a big factor.
“Montreal has made it very clear that they want to be very physical,” he continued. “I think the term they used was they want to make it a war. If you’re going to do that, you’re at risk of getting penalties called against you. That’s our job as a power-play, to make them pay for that.”
Down three goals, Ducharme pulled Price with more than six minutes remaining on the clock and still failed to gain dangerous O-zone time.
Alexander Kerfoot deposited an empty-netter.
A best-of-five series begins anew at Bell Centre Monday night for the first half of a back-to-back.
“One of the best parts of the playoffs, frankly, is the opportunity to respond,” Keefe said. “The other team has an edge, and the urgency rises a little bit more. You get a chance to really push back.”
And all the motivation to do so, with Tavares no doubt watching his brothers from home, surrounded by family.
“This one’s for him, obviously,” Matthews said. “He’s our guy. He’s our captain.”