Quick Shifts: Why so many Maple Leafs fans are cheering with fear

Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares (91) celebrates his goal with Jake Muzzin (8) in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019, in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Bet against Martin St. Louis at your own peril.

1. A large swath of Toronto Maple Leafs fans, traumatized by repeated disappointment when the stakes are highest, are rooting from a place of fear.

In isolation, a 5-2 road loss to a hot goalie after ripping off six consecutive wins should be a shrug. Little more than a blip on an impeccable .716 regular season, what is tracking to be the greatest 82-gamer in franchise history.

Yet what makes the Maple Leafs’ fanbase so fragile, what makes the team itself so compelling, is that every stumble is viewed through this prism of abject terror.

Observers are forever hunting for foreshadowing, clues to predict another postseason unravelling.

And, boy, do the Maple Leafs provide.

“It was a playoff type of game. Two good teams. And that’s how we have to play,” Calgary’s Noah Hanifin said after Thursday’s win. “You want to be a team that can break teams down and use your building.”

A playoff type game.

The Flames game. The Rangers game. The Blues game. The Avalanche game. The Golden Knights game. The Hurricanes games.

Toronto — dynamic, defensively improved, and a hoot to watch — has passed some of those tests, but not all.

On Thursday, the Leafs were undone by the timely save that didn’t come, a short but costly stretch of blown defensive assignments, and an opponent more committed to physical play. They also took a couple of sloppy unforced errors: a too-many-men infraction, a puck-over-glass minor.

All of these same nicks have cut their recent postseason runs at seven or less.

Can you lean back and enjoy the ride if you're pretty sure one of the seatbelts is faulty?

Yes, the Leafs threw more pucks at Calgary’s net, outshooting the Flames 48-26, but the high-danger chances (per NaturalStatTrick.com) were a dead heat, 8-8.

Toronto was outhit 18-7, and “a violent hit” (coach Sheldon Keefe’s term) took out a key player, Ondrej Kase.

We shouldn’t need to remind you that violent hits took out key players mid-series in 2020 (Jake Muzzin) and 2021 (John Tavares). Both incidents shaped those respective series.

No, Toronto is not going to morph into the bully by March 21. Philosophically, the Leafs are built to outplay you, not outmuscle you.

Over seven games, however, the physical nature of this sport can will take a toll. Over four rounds? That toll compounds.

So, we can’t blame those who cheer from a place of fear.

2. Asked impending free agent Nazem Kadri why he switched agents, from Brian MacDonald to Darren Ferris, amidst the best season of his life.

“I just felt like it was time, you know. Through my career, I feel like I've given myself an opportunity to explore, and I've had the same agent for a long, long time now. And I just wanted to see what else was out there for me,” Kadri said.

“It was just difficult to do, in general. [MacDonald] was a great friend of mine. And we formed a great relationship. So it's always tough to have those conversations, but at the end of the day, I think I owe it to myself, and it's something that I've definitely earned.”

Kadri had run into Ferris — who negotiated Mitch Marner’s lucrative 2019 deal and got creative with Taylor Hall’s one-year bid in Buffalo as a UFA in 2020 — a few times when he was in Toronto.

3. There is something poetic about Dave Tippett’s last major decision as Oilers head coach is tapping a 39-year-old Mike Smith to start both halves of a back-to-back. Then watching his guy allow goals on the first two shots.

That call underscores Edmonton’s greatest weakness by a zillion miles: goaltending.

The Oilers have no shutouts. They have a team save percentage of .897, 25th overall and 12 points below the league average. No team with a save percentage worse than .901 is in playoff position.

True, the Oilers don’t play tight hockey in front of their goalies. But when you give up the first goal more often than anybody else, you’re tempted to play catchup — and that further exposes your great weakness.

Ken Holland should have addressed his crease in the off-season and did not.

"You can’t just keep whipping through coaches," Holland proclaimed on Jan. 11. (Less than a month before naming Edmonton’s 10th bench boss in 13 years.)

Well, it’s high time to start whipping through goalies.

Holland chose to make the desperation signing of Evander Kane. He’s now fired his coach midseason, something he’d never done in his storied career. But he’s so far ignored his group’s greatest deficiency.

4. With the Islanders making their annual trip to Vancouver this week, I was reminded of the infamous “Streaker Game.”

On March 30, 1974, The Penthouse nightclub hired three women to go streaking on the Pacific Coliseum ice — a publicity stunt pulled off in the middle of a Canucks-Islanders tilt and immortalized in this photograph by Bill Cunningham:

“Added a lot of entertainment to a very mediocre first period of hockey,” former Canucks defencemen Tracy Pratt told Global News.

So, I’d heard this tale before.

What I didn’t know was that my own uncle, former Isles centre Dave Hudson, was playing that night.

That’s him in the top left corner, “shocked,” delighted and nearly falling out of the visitors’ bench.

“Just checking for offside,” Uncle Dave quips. “It apparently was a setup with Vancouver insiders. They came on ice right at our players’ gate and exited the next gate. They used Zamboni space to get on the ice.”

Jumping on the streaking trend of the mid-’70s, a similar stunt was pulled off by Miss Cyndi, who cameoed during a lightly attended L.A. Kings’ win over the Penguins wearing only a cap and a pair of skates.

5. Stray thought with the Maple Leafs in Vancouver this evening: Would Toronto be interested in Tyler Motte?

While I do believe the Leafs’ primary trade need will be its blueline, if the Canucks don’t foresee extending Motte, the feisty, defensive-minded, versatile forward is precisely the type of depth asset that will be coveted by many a contender.

Motte kills penalties. He starts the vast majority of his shifts in the D-zone yet gets the puck moving the other way. His $1.225-million cap hit, especially pro-rated, is manageable. He blocks shots, throws hits, and is more likely to steal a puck than turn one over.

Even better: Motte’s numbers spike across the board when you look at his 17 postseason games.

Could be a smart, low-key add for someone.

6. Mark Stone’s superstition is he likes to park in the exact same spot every time he pulls into T-Mobile Arena.

“But sometimes the media trucks are in my spot,” he says. “I get a little nervous if I'm gonna play good that night or not.”

7. The record for most goaltenders to appear in a single NHL season, set last year at 98, has been blown to bits.

Makes sense, considering the NHL now has more teams than ever and, you know, Omicron.

Still, 107 goalies already seeing action in the show with another two and a half months to go is kinda crazy. Thirty-three of these guys have appeared in four games or fewer.

What do you know about Hugo Alnefelt? Zach Sawchenko? Felix Sandström?

This record should stand for a long time.

I found this breakdown, by QuantHockey.com, of all 107 by nationality interesting. For as much flak as Canada has taken for not developing enough elite netminders, it’s still the country with the greatest representation.

8. Highly coveted prospect Mack Guzda will be 26 when Sergei Bobrovsky’s nearly unmovable contract expires in Florida. Highly coveted prospect Spencer Knight will be 25.

Can the Panthers slow-play this out and develop what could be a stellar tandem a handful of seasons from now?

Or! Does an organization hungry to win now — before Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau’s massive raises kick in — and lacks its 2022 first- and second-round draft picks dangle one of these young netminders in a trade offer?

It’s no secret the Cats are one of the clubs keen on Arizona’s Jakob Chychrun. They love his cost certainty ($4.6 million cap hit through 2025), which would ease the stress of those payday up front. And bulking up the back end is the logical move for an offensive powerhouse that scores four goals a Knight.

9. Love the candour here from Marc Methot:

Here’s the incident in question, from 2017:

10. Mitch Marner gunned down the rumour that he’s been moonlighting as runner of the Maple Leafs’ TikTok account.

“I’m not. I keep getting asked this question, but I’m not a TikTok guy. I don’t like TikTok at all. I think I would like it, but I just don’t want to get addicted to another social media app. I’m kinda done with social media; I don’t really care for it anymore,” said Marner, who just wears the logo on his helmets.

So, how did this rumour even start?

“I don’t know. It’s probably because I can be immature at times, and I’m a pretty fun guy that enjoys his time. I think that’s what TikTok is all about, and I’m sure that’s why everyone thinks it.”

11. Fun nugget here from a couple of generational talents.

During all-star weekend, Connor McDavid made good on a promise he’d made to Alex Ovechkin the last time the Oilers and Capitals faced off.

Ovechkin had asked McDavid for an autographed stick for his young hockey-obsessed son, Sergei. Even though Ovechkin couldn’t make it to Las Vegas, McDavid made sure to scribble on the blade of one of his weapons: “To my friend Ovi Jr.”

Explained McDavid: “Any time Ovi asks for something, it gets done.”

12. Nineteen years deep in the league, there are few hockey minds more enlightened than Jason Spezza’s.

So you believe him when he says there has been a flip in how the second half of the season feels. A decade ago, Spezza says, players could feel a noticeable ratcheting up in intensity by mid-February.

Now? Not so much.

Because of parity and pressure, that level of urgency essentially persists throughout all 82.

“When you’re one of the top teams, we find we’re getting the best out of teams that are in the bottom of the standings because it’s a benchmark game for them,” Spezza says.

“My wife laughs at me because every time I leave saying, ‘It’s a big game tonight. We gotta win this one.’ She just snickers. It’s the same ol’ song and dance. But it’s true. That’s how you feel.

“Like, we played Detroit the other night, and Detroit is a team quite a bit below us. But they gave us a great effort. They’re fast; they’re hard to play against. There’s no free nights anymore.”

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