TORONTO – The soulless din of computer-generated ambient fan sound.
The giant blue seat-covering tarps advertising food that wasn’t served (Pizza Pizza) and drinks forbidden to be guzzled (Gatorade).
And the fact that more bears were spotted in the lower bowl (one, Carlton) than humans.
It all adds up to the feeling that, even as we flip the calendar forward, we are somehow slipping backwards.
A New Year’s Day Battle of Ontario, one preceded by weeks of inactivity by its participants, should’ve been a fun way to ring in 2022. A release, if not a celebration.
Instead, the mood inside Scotiabank Arena Saturday felt flatter than the Ottawa Senators’ rebuild trajectory does these days.
Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs, handily the better team, cruised to a 6-0 laugher with offensive contributions from a trio of unlikely heroes.
But one couldn’t help but wonder if a little crowd juice could’ve sparked some joy or some drama or a scrum or something — anything — to give the first Canadian hockey match of 2022 a jolt of life.
“As much as I was happy with our players’ engagement in the game, I don’t think game itself had a whole lot of emotion or energy or competitiveness, physicality, all those kinds of things that tend to ramp up when the fans are in the building,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “The game was void of that tonight.”
“I wish it was a full crowd,” Sens captain Brady Tkachuk lamented. “I know the province put in rules to keep people safe. I just wish they gave people the choice, the decision to come to games instead of just taking it away. It stings.”
Despite the lopsided run of play, there were moments a home throng would’ve lapped up.
With Morgan Rielly in the penalty box, the Maple Leafs pounced twice, scoring two shorthanded goals just 27 seconds apart, tying a club record (1986).
The first was a beautiful 2-on-1 strike by defenceman Justin Holl, whose New Year’s resolution appears to cease being the coach’s whipping boy. Holl rejoiced his first of the season with both bloody nostrils stuffed with gauze — a necessary amendment following this frightening brush with partner Rasmus Sandin’s skate:
“It just got me right in the tip of the nose,” said Holl, who believed he was high-sticked until he caught a replay. “So, I got a bleeder. But considering what could have happened, it was really best-case scenario.
“We were laughing about it, Muzz [Jake Muzzin] and I, in the locker room. We don’t score very often, so obviously when you do get on the Jumbotron and my nose is double-plugged, it was kinda funny.”
The second shorthanded goal belonged to the speedy Ilya Mikheyev. Participating in only his second contest of the season, the Russian burst up the gut and beat Ottawa’s Matt Murray clean under the armpit on a breakaway. (The Cobra would later add a third-period power-play strike and tied a career high with a game-best seven shot son net.)
“I don’t know how many of those shorthanded breaks he had last season — but it was a lot. And the puck didn’t fall for him,” Keefe said. “So for it to fall early for him, that is huge for him and huge for us.”
T.J. Brodie, who assisted on both shorties, scored on a wraparound in the second period and later made a goal-line save at the other end, punctuating his three-point night with several smart D-zone plays.
“It’s crazy the skill he has on the 2-on-1s and breaking up passes,” said Jack Campbell, after posting his fourth and easiest shutout of the season. “Everybody was super pumped for him in the locker room. He’s just an amazing teammate, amazing friend and just an unbelievable player.”
In their first action since mid-December, the Leafs were clearly shaking off rust in the early going, but they still had the puck all night.
William Nylander — fresh off an asymptomatic 10-day Call of Duty quarantine — delivered a third-period breakaway snipe, then tacked on another in garbage time.
The COVID-depleted Senators’ effort was weak and uninspired, which can at least partly be attributed to losing four more players to the dreaded protocol over the past 48 hours.
“We didn’t give them any opportunities to get their life,” Keefe said, accurately.
Yet the onus falls on the players to generate their own life, regardless of the gate.
The Sens mustered far too few high-danger chances and seldom sustained zone time in the Toronto end. They also committed way too many sloppy minor penalties. (Zach Sanford alone got dinged for a hold, a cross-check, and a trip — coming a hook short of hitting for the cycle.)
With their $6.25-million goalie still hunting his first win of the season and their points percentage (.345) tumbling below last season’s (.455), the club seems already resolved to test its luck in another draft lottery.
“We just didn’t have it. That was clear from the get-go,” Sens coach D.J. Smith said, bluntly.
“We didn’t create a whole lot, and they took it to us. We gotta be better.”
The Maple Leafs — winners of four of their past five — will take the easy points and a few more days off.
Their next test arrives Wednesday, when Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers make their annual trek to Toronto.
Man, would fans love to fill the barn for that one.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Mitch Marner played his first game in exactly one month, following a shoulder injury he suffered in practice when he accidentally collided with Jake Muzzin.
“Jake’s probably one of my best friends on this team. We had some nice words about it, then it’s back to loving each other,” Marner said. “We got over it pretty quickly.”
• With Muzzin and Timothy Liljegren unfit to play, Alex Biega made his Maple Leafs debut.
The 33-year-old journeyman turned pro in 2010 and has yet to participate in an NHL playoff game — a major reason he signed with Toronto as a depth option in the off-season.
“This is a winning team, a winning culture,” Biega said. “We have superstars on this team.
“I’m just happy to be here.”
Muzzin returns to the lineup Wednesday.
• In the team’s first game with all forwards healthy, Nick Ritchie was a healthy scratch for his first time as a Leaf.
“It was a difficult decision because I think he has shown progress and his confidence is in a good spot,” Keefe explained. “He’s done nothing wrong to come out.”
• Pretty sneaky, Mitch.
• Nylander is riding a six-game point streak during which he has put up 10 points.