Maybe it was because of the rollercoaster 8-6 win against Carolina just before Christmas, but I had a strange feeling entering this game — like something really good or really bad was about to happen.
I briefly entertained a second consecutive convincing Leafs victory that would spur on an inspiring stretch run coming off of the 4-0 win over Pittsburgh. I also contemplated the possibility of a James Reimer shutout or a Jake Gardiner hat trick in what would be a third blowout Leaf loss this week.
As is tradition with this franchise, it was even worse than my worst-case scenario.
I cannot fathom why Sheldon Keefe called it only an execution problem and not an effort issue based on their five-on-five play in the first period. They played decent hockey for three-to-four minutes near the end of the period, but the Leafs had Frederik Andersen to thank for being 1-0 up instead of 2-1 or 3-1 down in that period. They were thoroughly outcompeted on their own two power plays, and they gave up 17 shots on goal, a fair number of which were quality looks for the Canes.
The rest of the story is going to be immortalized in the hockey history books. You really could write a book about it, but it’s basically this: In the thick of a playoff race, the Leafs gave up 47 shots and lost 6-3 on home ice with their 42-year-old Zamboni driver outfitted in a Marlies mask tending the other team’s net for the final 30 minutes of the game against an opponent playing tired in a back-to-back.
The Leafs were outscored 3-2 after emergency backup goaltender David Ayres entered the net, and the team was outshot 9-7 after they entered the third period down 4-3. I can’t remember nor do I care to look it up, but they may have gone an entire power-play at one point without putting a single shot on the Zamboni guy. Tyson Barrie fell over on his own accord three separate times in the third period. At one point, Martin Marincin couldn’t figure out how out to maneuver his own stick out from behind his back in behind the Leaf net. Mitch Marner couldn’t stick handle on the power play and at one point his legs seemed to freeze in place with a loose puck a few feet out of his reach. The team as a whole simply forgot how to play hockey. They were unable to execute simple passes. All they could really muster was a few 1-on-4 rushes up the middle of the ice for turnovers.
After the game, the Leafs’ $11 million player described his own effort and leadership as “dogshit” after commenting earlier in the week on how the team seems to “give up” when the going gets tough. When asked about the team’s mood following the 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh, Auston Matthews smirked, cracked a smile, scoffed, and said “no comment.” Rewinding the timeline, the team got lit up in Pittsburgh and totally gave up on debuting goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo in his first-ever NHL start back in November. Last season, in John Tavares’ first game back on Long Island, the team got buried and showed zero pulse all night. Of course, we all know about their inability to deal with adversity in the Game 7s of the last two years.
There is a possibility that the team is dealing with a crippling inability to cope with heightened pressure more than it is outright lacking in effort or desire. The public spectacle of Marner’s protracted, ugly contract negotiation was always going to result in seriously intense pressure to live up to the new expectation level. All of the Leafs young core players are playing on massive contracts predicated on the expectation of great things to come as opposed to any sort of past team success — and it’s all magnified ten-fold in the most scrutinized market in hockey, at a time when instant fan and media feedback follows these players around in their pockets everywhere they go. Their big offseason acquisition — who used to joke with teammates in Colorado that he would win a Norris if he played in Canada — has been so crippled by the expectations of playing in Canada’s biggest market that the formerly smooth-skating, slick puck-moving defenseman struggles to execute basic plays on many nights. The number of low-percentage shots he throws at the net on a given night makes you wonder if he’s here to win or to save a contract season that’s gone totally awry.
Something is indeed rotten in the state of Leafland, and the fans — yet again — deserve so much better. The talent is there, but this season feels lost without actually being at all lost yet in the standings. That this all unfolded in the final game before the trade deadline has to serve as a flashing neon sign screaming at Kyle Dubas to act in the best long-term interest of this franchise rather than flailing in desperation to save a season that is starting to feel like one long, waking nightmare.