CHICAGO – It’s not always what is said that finally drills the message home. It’s how it’s said — and by whom.
So, with the Toronto Maple Leafs digging themselves a 2-0 hole after 20 minutes to the winless Chicago Blackhawks, a couple of unnamed members of the team spoke up during the first intermission.
“I think [they] got us, quite frankly, pissed off,” said goalie Jack Campbell, still pouring with sweat. “I think that’s what sparked us. Love seeing the passion and love seeing guys come through on the ice with it too. And, you know, everybody was battling. Needed everybody tonight.”
Although the names belonging to those voices were kept anonymous, their message should resonate with a fan base that has been questioning the heart of that group during an early four-game losing skid.
“Time to wake up. Enough feeling sorry for ourselves. Like, nobody’s going to get us out of this,” said William Nylander, after delivering the cherry on top of Toronto’s 3-2 overtime comeback victory.
“We needed to up the battle.”
We do know that it wasn’t coach Sheldon Keefe going full All or Nothing speech on this night.
“In a lot of cases, you’re better served when the players are taking it upon themselves to deal with things and talk about it and reinforce the coach’s message,” Keefe said.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was a relief.
Wayne Simmonds announced what everyone was thinking prior to puck drop in a battle of the NHL’s two most uninspiring teams of the moment: “It’s a big one.”
Walking into United Center Wednesday night, the Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks had combined for all of two wins in 13 games.
“Urgency is high,” acknowledged Keefe. A highly unusual comment just two weeks into an 82-game haul.
“Mentally, it’s been a lot.”
Both sides stepped in fragile. A loss to a weak team would only compound the issue.
“It’s just a mentality more than anything,” Alexander Kerfoot explained. “Our work ethic and our focus probably aren’t where they need to be.”
The top-to-bottom mess that is the winless Blackhawks came into the night having never held a lead at any point this season.
But a date with the spiraling Maple Leafs did solve that small issue — if nothing else.
Kirby Dach opened the scoring on the power-play, attacking Jake Muzzin in the slot and firing the puck past Campbell to open the scoring.
Seth Jones then sprung Alex DeBrincat for a clean breakaway, catching Toronto on an egregious line change. DeBrincat left Justin Holl in his wake and beat Campbell high glove.
“That’s got to stop,” Keefe said. “Those details put us in holes. That can’t happen.”
Once “Chelsea Dagger” faded out, a guy in a Hawks sweater stood up and cajoled his fellow fans to make more noise: “We just got our first lead of the season! Let’s go!”
The Leafs had spent two days discussing the need to commit defensively, believing good habits in their own zone and less pinching for their own scoring chances could be the key to unlocking a dour offence.
Yet the Blackhawks generated a frightening number of breakaways and odd-man rushes.
“In trying to get that offensive game going, we’ve kind of left ourselves wide open defensively,” Simmonds said.
“We got to be comfortable winning games 2-1, 3-1, 1-0, whatever it is, until our offence gets going. There’s no shame in that. We got a lot of firepower on this team. We know it will come around. We have to stick to the foundation of our game.”
The first hint of that foundation wasn’t spotted until the second period, when Mitch Marner busted his six-game point drought and set up old pal John Tavares with a simple pass off the rush. Tavares whipped home a wicked backhander to get the Leafs on the board.
“Definitely feels good to smile,” a buoyant Marner said postgame, looking like a man who had finally finished rolling a boulder up a mountain.
Former Blackhawk David Kämpf tied the contest midway through the third period with a pretty backhander of his own. Kämpf’s first as a Leaf already equals his total goal production from 2020-21.
“I’m so happy for him,” Nylander said. “That was a great play and a huge hole for the team. We really needed that one.”
With the Hawks doubling Toronto’s high-danger chances 8-4 and Campbell standing on his head, the Leafs needed Nylander’s nifty five-hole deke through Kevin Lankinen in Period 4 even more.
“He knows as my brother [Chicago’s Alex], I would think, this goalie and forehand-backhand is kind of a thing that we both do,” Nylander explained of his strategy. “At the last second, I just thought, ‘Lemme try five-hole on this guy’ because I felt like he was coming along with me pretty good.
“What was the score, 2-0? Come back and win 3-2 in OT? I think that’s a good way to battle back when you’re going through a lot of adversity.”
Even the simple stuff, like defeating a bad team on the ropes, looks difficult for the Leafs these days.
But they’ll take the two points and run.
“Whew. It was a hard-fought one,” said Campbell between gasps.
The goalie was still catching his breath as the music blared and local pizza was munched in the visitors’ room.
For the first time all trip, the Maple Leafs were having fun.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Sheldon Keefe on Kyle Beach: “The courage Kyle Beach showed here today in stepping up and being a voice for people that are victims, I think, is incredibly brave. Something that not only helps make our game better in ensuring that these things don’t happen, but the world and society in general. So, it’s much too late here, but certainly the hockey world has given our support to Kyle.”
• Thursday marks two weeks since backup goalie Petr Mrazek suffered his groin injury in Ottawa. He was on the trip and, for the first time, was a full participant in Monday’s practice.
Mrazek praised the Leafs medical staff for their assistance in his speedy recovery and is hopeful to play in a few days.
“They take care of me so well,” Mrazek said. “Outstanding job. I haven’t had treatment like that ever before. Thanks to these guys I’ll be back sooner than later. It’s a totally different level here.”
• Fun fact: Kämpf did not score a single goal at United Center as a Blackhawk (his lone marker came in Nashville). He’s now one-for-one in this barn as a Leaf.
• The Leafs have now failed to convert on 17 consecutive power-play chances.
“We’re a little bit out of sorts,” Matthews said. “We definitely need to just simplify and shoot some more pucks. We got to get it, find a lane, and get sticks on it and just have guys converging down low. Right now, even in our five-on-five play, we’re looking too much for the pretty play instead of just keeping it a little more simple and getting ugly goals. If we do that, it opens up more space for seam plays.”
• A Blackhawks fan pounded the glass and flipped the bird at the Maple Leafs after Nylander’s OT winner. Matthews looked at the guys and kept hollering “Wooo!”