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Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Matthew Knies celebrates his goal during the second period of Game One against the Florida Panthers, in Toronto, Tuesday, May 2, 2023.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

It was the sort of night where the Leafs did a lot of things right, and got little advantage from it, and a couple of things wrong, and were punished for them all.

The visiting Florida Panthers were supposed to understand their role in this Toronto-based melodrama - be plucky, but lose. They must have been given a different script.

Only one thing went right for the Leafs on Tuesday - the continued emergence of Matthew Knies.

When you attend a Leafs game, you know who’s going to get the biggest ovation - Wendel Clark. If Clark is participating in one of those nightly salute-the-military moments, that will be the biggest individual cheer of the evening. Doug Gilmour is a close second.

This Leafs’ team of right now has more great players than Clark’s or Gilmour’s teams, but it doesn’t have heroes like that. Not yet at least.

Toronto’s hockey crushes are unpredictable. It’s not always the best player people fall in love with. It’s usually the guy who is seen to care the most.

However good, these Leafs don’t give off that I’m-losing-sleep-over-this-one feeling. Knies gives off that feeling.

In the first period against Florida, he tried putting one on net from between his own legs, with his back to the Panthers’ goalie. What a cheek from a guy who hasn’t yet played 10 games in the NHL. But the crowd loved it.

In the second, he did a modified version of that first period attempt, but this time two Panthers had just nailed him as he headed toward the crease. Knies spun fully around and put the puck into the net backhand.

And then it was love. Gushing, embarrassing, thunder-bolt-from-the-skies sort of love.

After that goal, the arena camera lingered on Knies for a long time. Maybe too long. The crowd squealed.

Squeezed between Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, Knies looked abashed at all the attention. Marner couldn’t help himself but to peek up at the scoreboard, knowing he shouldn’t. Yup. They were indeed cheering for the guy to his right.

After the Leafs came out during the second intermission, the arena camera focused exclusively on Knies. It followed him his entire warm-up. It escorted him back to the bench. Game Ops has an instinctive feel for what the people want. On Tuesday, they wanted the kid who’d just scored his first ever NHL goal.

Knies, 20, is so new to all this that he still analogizes the things he’s seeing in the NHL to the things he was seeing a few weeks ago in the NCAA. The effect of so much well-meaning naiveté effect is charming.

When he’s out there, you can feel him trying to toe a complicated line between doing what he feels in the moment, the fear of getting it wrong and the much greater fear of taking up too much attention. The double spin-o-rama on Tuesday night suggests that doing what he feels is starting to win out.

After the Leafs lose a bad one, the players they bring out to speak play an important double duty. They should take responsibility, but not seem despairing. They should talk up the team, but not sound delusional. Most importantly, they should not say anything that becomes a headline. A lot of Leafs have gotten this part wrong. Being invited to participate in that post-game cliche fest shows trust.

Twenty minutes after Tuesday’s game, the Leafs brought out 15-year veteran Luke Schenn, recent Selke nominee Marner, the best Toronto player of the evening, Ilya Samsonov, and Knies. Knies knew that he should not appear happy. Very important not to smile.

When someone brought up the goal, you could see a titanic battle begin between the corners of Knies’s mouth and his brain.

“It’s a surreal feeling, especially in the playoffs,” Knies said, mouth twitching, brain firing, eyes bulging. He found refuge in giving all the credit to Auston Matthews, who passed it to him before he barrelled through two defenders and scored a no-look beauty on the hottest goalie in the NHL.

The Leafs produce more cool cats and affectless drones per roster year than any other team in the NHL. Marner’s a case in point. He’s been burned in the past by an errant observation at the wrong time of year. So he comes out after the loss with his arms folded across his chest, giving six syllable answers, acting like a Selke nomination is about as meaningful as a participation ribbon on school activity day.

Who can blame him? To show emotion or give a straight answer in Toronto is to risk media annihilation. But Knies is so new that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He’s just out there winging it.

There is a world in which the Leafs win the Stanley Cup and the guy who wins most of all is Knies. He may not score the most points or play the most minutes, but he could be the one who’s seen as the catalyst for change. He is untainted by past failures.

It doesn’t hurt that Knies looks like a guy out of a Disney film about hockey. Clean cut; handsome, but not offensively so; still has all his own teeth. Shy, but not retiring. Intent not only on succeeding, but also on entertaining. You can’t score your way into Toronto’s heart, but you might be able to spin your way in there.

After the players did their speaking roles, it was time for the coaches. In terms of banter, Sheldon Keefe vs. Paul Maurice isn’t much of a competition. That’s already going to be a sweep.

Keefe’s one exemplary moment was when he was asked if he was “surprised” by Knies’s performance.

“I’m kind of past that,” Keefe said with some edge, “That’s why I’m putting him in the spots he’s in.”

There’s a long way to go before we see where this Leafs team fits on the great roll call of the last 30 years. They could be anywhere from one of the good ones to the special one.

But it is already beginning to seem like one very recent cast addition is making his way to the top of the recent all-time favourite charts.

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