TORONTO – Forever ago (or maybe it was October), when the Toronto Maple Leafs were lost, fumbling and all out of sorts, head coach Sheldon Keefe leaned hard on one adjective to describe their unrefined brand of hockey: disconnected.
The forwards weren’t helping the defencemen enough, and the blueliners couldn’t time their tape.
Reads, passes, press conferences, body language… little around the team, on or off ice, felt in sync. The coach knew it. They players felt it. And the fans could see it.
Playing for the Leafs was like inviting a blind date to a Dining in the Dark restaurant. The intentions may have been good, but when the lights flicked on, it was a mess.
My, what a difference a hot streak and some cool confidence can make.
On Thursday, from puck drop to buzzer, from crease to crease, pair to pair, line through line, the Maple Leafs submitted their most complete — most connected — 60 minutes of the season, thrashing the Los Angeles Kings 5-0.
As easy as the Maple Leafs are making wins appear during their 13-game point streak, this wagon run is the product of hundreds of tiny conversations and line tweaks, motivations and decisions.
Like this one, which will surely zip under the radar on a night where Mitchell Marner went full-crank slapshot to extend his record-breaking point streak to 21 games and goaltender-slash-comedian Ilya Samsonov reeled off the Leafs’ second shutout in under 48 hours.
About a week ago, Manny Malhotra pulled Zach Aston-Reese aside for a talk. The assistant coach challenged the fourth-line checker to be more physical, throw more hits. After all, that is a big piece of what attracted Toronto to the winger in free agency.
Aston-Reese took the message to heart and came out hungry to impact the game in the small way a role player can.
Following a scoreless first period, in which the home side dominated possession, Aston-Reese caught L.A.’s Arthur Kaliyev with his head down at centre ice, looking at the puck in his feet, and levelled the King onto a highlight show near you.
Blake Lizotte rushed to fight Aston-Reese, and the Leaf took him down too.
Instigator Lizotte got dinged for a slashing minor, and Aston-Reese’s fellow bottom-sixer Pierre Engvall sniped on the ensuing power-play.
“That hit and the fight woke up the crowd a little bit,” said Aston-Reese. “I was so happy to see Pierre score there, too. Then the floodgates opened.”
Sixty-six seconds later, Toronto had mounted a 3-0 lead, thanks to hardworking goals from David Kämpf and William Nylander. Comically, PA announcer Mike Ross twice had to stop reading out scorers’ names because Scotiabank Arena was already celebrating a new goal.
One of those four-encore nights for Hall & Oates. And a four-hit evening for Aston-Reese.
By the time Marner and Auston Matthews piled on, the outcome was already a foregone conclusion.
Matthews is happy to gush over his superstar pal Marner, of course: “Nice clap-bomb he had there. I didn’t know he could shoot the puck like that.”
But he, too, understands the valuable connections that must be made between role players like Kämpf and Aston-Reese to the multimillionaire superstars hogging all the headlines and job security in this market.
“Those are the kind of things that happen in the game that make a small difference. They go a long way,” Matthews said of Aston-Reese’s hit.
“Definitely got some energy in the crowd. Then a couple quick goals, and we got them back on their heels.”
Aston-Reese didn’t register a single point. Wasn’t named one of the game’s three stars. And yet it was he who was handed the club’s player of the game belt by former champ Matt Murray.
Are we arguing that the Maple Leafs would’ve lost to the Kings had Aston-Reese not thrown a nasty body check? Of course not. The sharper, more talented squad won the day in a landslide.
We are saying that it’s imperative everyone in that dressing room feels involved — gets connected — if the top-heavy Maple Leafs are to enjoy sustained success come springtime.
On Thursday, there were no passengers.
“Just a full team effort, all around. Those are the types of games that you want to play,” Matthews says.
Adds Samsonov: “D-zone, offensive zone, we dominate today.”
In the wake of his group’s most complete effort, as all his strings seem to be pulling in the same direction, does Keefe kind of wish it was March already?
“Whether I do or not, there’s no point in thinking about it,” Keefe replies, swallowing a sly smile.
“It’s not. So, we’ve got a long road ahead.”
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• Heartbreaking shoulder injury for Nick Robertson, who was set up for a decent run in Toronto’s top six with Calle Järnkrok already sidelined.
“You feel for the kid. He gives everything he has to the game,” Keefe said. “Feels a little differently when it’s a young guy like him, and he’s had his fair share of injuries each year that he’s played professionally. Tough thing for him.”
Robertson will bounce back. It’s what he does.
• Leafs superfan Justin Bieber was in the house — and sitting with the commoners. (Usually, he’s spotted up in the suites when he attends.)
Did Auston Matthews catch a glimpse of his famous friend’s outfit?
“Hard to miss,” Matthews smiles.
The Biebs joined the players in the dressing room to celebrate post-game.
• Aston-Reese had to answer Lizotte’s request to fight after this open-ice hit of puck carrier Arthur Kaliyev.
Should it be necessary to drop the gloves after a clean check?
“I was ready for it,” Aston-Reese shrugs. “Any time there’s a big hit, I think it’s just the culture. If your buddy, your teammate, gets hit hard, you’re gonna stick up for him. I have no problem with it. It’s part of the game. You just have to be ready to answer the bell.”
• Ten-year pro Logan Shaw, 30, was named captain of the Marlies, taking over duties from Rich Clune. He has 25 points through 22 games, on track for his most productive AHL season.
“The Leafs organization is what I watched growing up,” says the Nova Scotia native. “It’s not an easy league. You’re on the bus for long hours, and sometimes it can get pretty crappy, but I just want to make sure that everyone knows that I’m there to support them. I’m on an American League deal, so I’m here to help those guys.”
Coach Greg Moore was impressed by Shaw’s effort to build relationships with everyone within the Marlies from the outset of camp: “Really strong emotional intelligence of just knowing what’s needed and how to feel out moments. And he’s just super competitive, and he backs it up on the ice. [He] demands a lot of himself and demands a lot of the team.”
• Marner keeps saying Kämpf deserves much more credit than he receives.
“It’s huge for me, from a guy like him,” Kämpf says.
In addition to his stellar defensive play, the $1.5-million bargain centre is producing at an 11-goal, 32-point clip. He’s on track for his greatest offensive season.
Toronto is undefeated in regulation (14-0-1) whenever Kämpf scores a goal.
Maybe it’s time to talk extension.