TORONTO – When a team scores with the regularity of the Toronto Maple Leafs, seldom does the head coach so much as blink in the red glare of a goal lamp.
Game 27 of an 82-game grind? An early December Tuesday at home against an overmatched Columbus Blue Jackets outfit?
For a club that considers itself a contender, offence is to be expected, not celebrated. Or singled out.
And yet, there was coach Sheldon Keefe stepping away from his post and going down the bench to congratulate Nick Ritchie in the middle of a walkaway victory. Patting him on the back where a monkey used to reside.
“Loved it. It's obviously been a long time coming,” said Keefe, uncovering a happy moment to discuss in a sloppy game.
“I said to him on the bench, ‘I can't take a lot of credit for it because I've been calling it for quite a while now — tonight's gonna be the night.’ But I did feel strongly that today was gonna be the day for him.”
A push alert to the smartphones of Leaf Nation: Nick Ritchie has scored a goal.
Sure, it didn’t occur on the power-play, the way Keefe predicted, nor in Winnipeg on Sunday — Ritchie’s 26th birthday, when Keefe had his strongest hunch.
But it happened. And there was a party.
“The whole bench was just ecstatic. Everybody was super excited,” Auston Matthews said after the Leafs' 5-4 victory. “He's been all over it. He's had plenty of chances, just a little bit snakebit. So that was a huge goal for him, and I think it's just gonna get him rolling now.”
On a roster brimming with pleasant surprises (Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting), extreme value contracts (Jason Spezza, Jack Campbell), and superstars who make the scoresheet as often as Admiral William H. McRaven makes his bed, Ritchie had become painted as the rusty cog on an otherwise well-oiled machine.
Keefe had tried giving the free-agent flyer an extended trial on Matthews’ top line not once but twice. He’s had the benefit of net-front power-play position and even been promoted to the top PP unit in times of injury.
At every turn, Ritchie’s teammates and coach would defend his work ethic and attitude. He’s been given the benefit of the doubt because, in a cap-constricted world, the Leafs need their investments to pay off. And Ritchie himself, on his third team at age 26, needs to stick.
As the big winger’s goal drought dragged on to 36 games, they would go out of their way to praise a nice screen or a sweet pass. The little things, until the big one arrived.
In Ritchie’s defence, who among us would turn down $5 million to play two years with a few of the world’s greatest playmakers?
After a while, reporters stopped asking questions about Ritchie.
For one, he’s played just fine as a bottom-six winger. He seldom makes an impact play, but that applies both ways.
For two, it feels silly to complain about the blister on Andre De Grasse’s baby toe when you can just watch the guy run.
Ritchie quietly punched the clock. No sulking, just digging. And with the Leafs stacking standings points, the noise around him quieted too.
“He's a guy that came in, fit right into our group. He works hard. He's been contributing in lots of ways,” Morgan Rielly said. “For him to get his first here at home is great. We're very happy for him. Teammates were giving him lots of love.”
Added Keefe: “He's very quietly playing well here. Coming into tonight, I think he had four points in the last five games. You just see him coming. He's had some really good chances. Thrilled for him.”
So, amidst Toronto’s victory over the Jackets, the joyous celebration over Ritchie’s first-period goal stood out.
Kase, who set up Ritchie in the slot with a hard forecheck behind the net, pumped both fists like he was shaking a KitKat out of a vending machine. Keefe strode over for the pep talk. The fans roared for the local boy done good. And the stoic face of Ritchie himself turned seven shades of relief.
“It’d been a while… probably as long as it's been since I’ve been playing hockey maybe. And it feels good to get one, and hopefully I can build some confidence and momentum off that,” Ritchie said.
“That's almost the better feeling than scoring the goal — seeing how much your team cares.”
Absolutely, we could be writing about Rielly’s four-assist showing.
Or Matthews’ torrid scoring streak, now up to 10 goals in seven games.
Or Bunting’s hard-working, between-the-legs, blind assist with Mitch Marner injured (“It was beautiful,” Matthews said) — giving the senior rookie 11 points in eight games.
Or another Campbell win, decorated with a few highlight-reel stops.
But Ritchie was due.
So, let’s give him some.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Yes, Keefe considered promoting Kase, instead of Wayne Simmonds, up to Matthews’ No. 1 line in the absence of Marner and the suspended Spezza. But Kase’s recent return from injury and his chemistry with David Kämpf on the checking line made the coach hesitant to break that third unit up.
• Campbell wasn’t tested nearly as much as Columbus chased counterpart Elvis Merzlikins, but this pair of shorthanded stops on speedy Alexandre Texier were critical in the early going:
• Matthews has scored 16 goals and racked up 26 points in his past 18 games, making us forget about his slow start. The wrist looks just fine now, thanks.
• Call him old-school, but Columbus’s Max Domi is a fan of the way things used to be — when players doubled as police.
“You look at Wayne Gretzky,” Domi said. “No one got within 10 feet of him because they’d have to answer to four or five other guys.”
(Domi was not referring to the Department of Player Safety.)
• The undrafted Kristians Rubins climbing his way from the ECHL to the NHL is kinda like Jermaine Dupri climbing his way from Whodini backup dancer to president of So So Def Recordings.