Quick Shifts: Why the Maple Leafs are so jacked to be on the road

Sam Cosentino breaks down the best performances from NHL rookies over the last couple of weeks across the league.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Even if you’re having a bad day, go out there and get the W.

1. How rare is it that a scorching team going 12-3 in its past 15 home dates is so juiced to get out on the road?

Yet that is precisely the mindset of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who seem champing at the bit to escape Doug Ford’s lockdown and Ontario’s hollow arenas.

The players are winning, not whining. But certainly there is an underlying sense many are biting their tongues on how strongly they feel about the current COVID protocols after they’ve taken all the needles, worn all the masks and denied themselves all the restaurants.

"When you go from playing in front of fans to an empty building, it's challenging. I'm not going to lie to you," a diplomatic Morgan Rielly says.

"I love to play and compete regardless of who's around, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a bit of a shock coming back to the empty building,” adds Jason Spezza.

"We can definitely use the juice from the crowd — even if it is as a visiting team."

“One step forward, three steps back” is how Auston Matthews described it, following two false positive tests in two weeks. "We're all vaccinated. This was supposed to be a really positive thing that was supposed to protect us and kind of get on our way to getting back to normal here. I don't know if that's really been the case."

Wednesday night versus Edmonton in a one-anthem, zero-fan game, we saw Mitch Marner throw an imaginary puck to an imaginary child.

Then Marner nestled next to Zach Hyman for the opening draw and said to his former linemate, with deadpan sarcasm: “Get the crowd into it early.”

Then he tested positive and will be forced to miss some time despite dealing with only minor symptoms.

It’s one thing to expect disappointment and deal with it.

It’s another to be sprinting along and suddenly realize you’ve hit quicksand while 78 per cent of the other racers keep chugging along like normal.

“It's felt a whole lot different just going from full to empty. That's been a dramatic change. I think the players have felt that. I think the game has suffered as a result, frankly,” Sheldon Keefe says.

Though Keefe tried to see the silver lining of just playing games at all (ask Ontario kids in minor hockey or adults in beer league how that’s going), the Leafs coach compared their two fan-free home wins versus Ottawa and Edmonton to the pre-season in terms of intensity.

The product weakens right along with the joy and the animosity.

“A scrimmage type of feel out there,” said Keefe, providing the NHL with a slogan to ignore.

“We're just fortunate to be able to play the games. But it's hard not to acknowledge that that's the case and that's the feeling out there.”

The pace, the noise, the passion, the effort — it should all ramp up Saturday when the Leafs face the smoking-hot Colorado Avalanche.

“We'll get ourselves out on the road,” Keefe says, “and that's gonna feel a lot more like the NHL.”

2. Not sure which is more of a cluster-mess at this point, the NHL’s competitive balance or its games-played balance.

Make sure to take the standings page with a grain of salt.

A five- to seven-game difference exists between the busiest and quietest teams in the GP column of all four divisions.

The New York Islanders have only played 28 times, while the Vegas Golden Knights already have 37 in the books.

The late-season crunch for these organizations hit hardest by COVID postponements (101 delayed dates across the league and counting) is going to be a beast.

With nine Maple Leafs games between mid-December and mid-January already postponed, is Keefe worried about the toll playing catchup could take later on?

“A little bit, to be honest,” the coach admits.

3. Oilers coach Dave Tippett knows well the blame hierarchy when it comes to goals allowed.

Wingers have it easiest. (Tippett himself was a winger.) Then centremen. Defencemen seldom get off easy. And goaltenders wear it the worst.

“They picked that position when they’re a young guy and come up. They deal with it. And a lot of times it dictates the outcome of the game,” Tippet said this week, in response to the Mikko Koskinen bungle.

By points percentage, Tippett’s nosediving group has descended to 18th overall (.559).

“There’s a lot of adversity here. We’re learning a lot about our team,” the coach said. “I know it seems like from the outside everything is chaos, but our group has stayed very tight inside. You watch our games, our team’s working hard. We're trying to find solutions to this.”

Outside of the captains, Tippett singled out the voice and work ethic of Duncan Keith in keeping the ship steady through these rough waters.

“His veteran leadership is really strong. On the bench, during games, between periods, he’s been really good,” said Tippett. “He’s a quiet guy, but when he speaks, people listen to him. That’s good for our group.”

Evan Bouchard, a 22-year-old in his first full season, is 16 years and three Cups behind Keith. He finds him an invaluable resource.

“He's great to talk to, easy to talk to,” Bouchard says. “He's a real leader in the room, and everyone looks up to him. So, it's great to have him.

“He's been a top defenceman in the league for many, many years. And to have him on the team is special. Just little things like body positioning, sticks, this lane, that lane. Little things like that, it really helps out.”

4. Considering all the parallels between the Maple Leafs and Oilers — the two most top-heavy franchises under the most pressure to succeed in the playoffs ASAP — and their similar trajectories, their head-to-head matchups have been incredibly lopsided of late.

Toronto has not lost in regulation in 10 straight games versus Edmonton, going 8-0-2 and outscoring them 39-19 over that span. (Yes, we know Connor McDavid was unavailable this week. But still.)

A significant reason for this? The Leafs get amped up for every face-off against the Oil.

“Myself and our team and our organization have great respect for the Oilers and how they play and the talent they have. I think that's a big part of why we've found success against them, frankly,” Keefe explains.

“Our guys seem to be focused and really prepared and execute at a high level against them, and that speaks to the level of respect we have for them.”

5. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting up early or staying up late or whatever one does to watch Owen Power try to help Canada win Olympic gold in Beijing.

Part of the motivation for Power to stay in school instead of jumping directly to the Buffalo Sabres was to compete in the world juniors. That’s been taken away. The Five Rings isn’t a bad consolation prize.

6. I just watched The Super Bob Einstein Movie and am a longtime Super Dave fan, so this viral video fed my appetite for physical comedy (albeit unintentional).

It’s worth sticking around for the final scene here:

7. As crappy as all these mandatory quarantines have been, and as much as they’ve taken their toll on the league’s competitive balance, they’ve also presented us with some compelling callups.

Last week, Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Sean Day, 23, finally made his NHL debut — more than five years after being drafted by the New York Rangers and more than eight years after being granted exceptional status in the OHL.

Sure, Day was returned to the farm after just two appearances, but he realized a dream:

On Thursday, Minnesota centre Marco Rossi got the call up from Iowa. The highly touted prospect lost his entire 2020-21 season and nearly had his career derailed due to COVID complications.

Warms the heart to see him come through and break through.

8. The goalie competition couldn’t be hotter in Boston.

With a healthy Tuukka Rask targeting an NHL return later this month and the Bruins operating with a cap cushion of a couple million bucks, the battle between Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman intensifies.

That Swayman doesn't require waivers to be sent down to Providence should give Ullmark the upper hand, but coach Bruce Cassidy says that’s not a forgone conclusion.

"We'll do what's best for the Bruins,” Cassidy says. “It's a good problem to have."

The numbers of Swayman (8-6-2, .918) and Ullmark (9-5-0, .917) don’t provide much separation. Yes, Swayman can be demoted with ease, but he’s still on his entry-level deal through 2023.

Ullmark is a $5 million cap hit through 2025.

Rask, 34, is a career .921 goaltender with a proven post-season pedigree.

If I’m Ken Holland, I’m at least placing a phone call to see if there’s a way to un-crowd the crease.

9. With Alex Ovechkin (275) surpassing Dave Andreychuk on the all-time power-play goal leaderboard, number cruncher Greg Harvey whipped up this fun historical graphic of the PPG race.

Incredible to watch all the legends come and go on this chart.

Also incredible: The nearest active threat to Ovechkin in this category is a distant Steven Stamkos. The 31-year-old has 172 power play snipes (32nd all-time).

10. Teachers have it rough these days.

To honour them, the NHL, its Players’ Association and SAP partnered with EVERFI to run the Future Goals Most Valuable Teacher program for a third year.

Through March 31, fans can vote here for their favourite teacher to win the Most Valuable Teacher of the Month award. School districts The nominee with the most votes at the end of each month will receive $10,000 worth of technology donations from SAP for their school district as well as street hockey equipment.

Stories of this year's candidates will be told throughout Teacher Appreciation Week. A great initiative that couldn’t be more timely.

11. When Brendan Perlini scored for the Oilers in Toronto Wednesday, Sportsnet play-by-play czar Chris Cuthbert brought up Brendan’s father, Fred, a Maple Leafs draft pick.

The senior Perlini left the NHL after putting up five points in eight career games. He continued to play pro in England for 11 years. (Brendan was born overseas as Fred’s career was winding down.)

Do yourself a favour and call up Fred Perlini’s HockeyDB page.

This Sault Ste. Marie centre absolutely lit up Britain: 1,629 points in 347 games for a 4.7 points per game average.

Perlini’s 1992-93 stat line for the Streatham Redskins Hockey Team is nothing short of hilarious.

12. “You are the chosen ones,” Callan Perk told the Peterborough Petes. “That’s your puck.”

The seven-year-old Perk goes by “Coach Cal,” and he’s a burgeoning motivational speaker whose pregame pep talk has been credited with spurring the OHL club to victory.

Well, the wee Ontario boy’s pep talk went viral and gained the attention of talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, who says his speech “literally brought me to tears.” DeGeneres interviewed Coach Cal on her show this week.

Some wholesome content in these trying times:

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