It isn’t often that the Toronto Maple Leafs get to be the heroes of the story.
They’re better suited at playing the supportive best friend. The one whose life is filled with disappointment, and who disappears just as the movie starts getting interesting.
But the NHL’s COVID-19 season has put the Leafs in the position to do the game of hockey a solid and stop the Columbus Blue Jackets.
On Tuesday, Columbus played an exaggerated version of Columbus hockey. Usually, the Blue Jackets are counterpunchers. They chase you around the length of the rink and, once you’ve started hitting back, turtle in their own zone.
This time they decided to play punching bag. For huge stretches of the game, Columbus appeared to be inventing a new sort of hockey where the object of the exercise is to possess the puck as little as possible.
Their crouch compacted to the point where it occasionally appeared that the Blue Jackets had six goalies rammed into the crease.
Depressingly, this approach nearly worked. For the first half of the game, Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo slid around the crease like an overstuffed sectional couch, stopping shots he had no business stopping.
However, the advantage in terms of the puck was such that even the Toronto Maple Leafs could not find a way to lose. The game ended 3-0. The best-of-five-game series is now tied at one apiece.
Afterward, head coach John Tortorella – the creator of this dreck, the man who robbed huge swaths of this country of a fun Tuesday night – provided Columbus’s only amusement value for the evening.
Before the first question had been finished, Tortorella was annoyed by it.
“You know what, guys? I’m not gonna break down the game at all. Toronto played a really good game. We sucked. But it doesn’t help our club right now to break it down with you guys.”
Complete answer to question #3: “Toronto is really good. We sucked.”
Complete answer to question #5: “Toronto is really good. We sucked.”
There was no sixth question.
Not so long ago, this no-market outfit was not even mildly interesting. Tortorella would come out each evening and perform his Crankiest Millionaire Alive routine. Some people found that charming. But no one cared about his team.
But after Columbus hammered Tampa in last season’s playoffs, Blue Jackets hockey got just a little bit sexy. Not much, but enough to be dangerous.
The NHL will always have a secret love for teams who play like the Blue Jackets because: a) they fit into the league’s nostalgic “man’s man” stereotypes; b) teams without identifiable stars are easier to manage; and c) it’s harder to look bad when you don’t try all that hard to be good.
You’d like to say none of this could work in a major market. That Edmonton or Montreal fans would not put up with a team that plays like it’s got hammers instead of sticks and is in the midst of barricading a house.
Under normal circumstances, they would not. Because people in those cities pay a fortune to watch live hockey, and they will stop doing that if they find themselves regularly blacking out from boredom during the second period.
But if Columbus continues to score high-profile, against-all-odds knockouts, some bright bulb is going to decide this is the new way to go: New Jersey Devils 2.0, minus the charisma.
That cannot be allowed.
Columbus may, of course, continue to play Tortorella’s turgid style. There is no law that says highly paid entertainers ought to entertain. There should be, but there isn’t.
After the comprehensive defeat, the Columbus players did not appear put out in any way. If anything, they seemed bored (boring being their organizational default). You know what they say in Ohio: Never too high and never too high.
Forward Nick Foligno blamed the loss on his team’s “compete level.” I guess if the Leafs had had 50 shots instead of 39, that would have given the Jackets a chance to throw themselves in front of even more pucks. That’s what they call a bravura performance.
“We can try and come back and play the right way,” Foligno said of Game 3.
You can say this for them – Columbus does play the right way for Columbus. Their defending – particularly that of Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and, for the moment, Korpisalo – is top of class. For the rest, you grudgingly admire their commitment to a way of doing things that looks so tedious.
For any NHL-calibre player, it must be frustrating to come to work each night knowing there will be no passes strung together, no odd-man rushes and no chance of making a TV highlight reel, even on a regional broadcast.
The Blue Jackets have taken a bunch of guys who at one point in their professional development were artists – otherwise, they would not be working at this level – and turned them into a bunch of house painters.
But while that may be good for this franchise in the short term, it is not good for hockey. If you showcase this bilge, it will encourage others. This creeping dread must be stopped here, in Toronto, where hockey stages all of its most important (contract) showdowns.
To their credit, the Leafs seem to understand that. That losing again, while not optimal, isn’t yet disastrous. But that losing to a team that should count itself lucky when it manages 20 shots on goal is the sort of thing no one will forget. Even here. Where everyone forgets everything all the time. Unless you are from Toronto, you should not root for the Leafs. That’s the price people here pay for low property taxes. It’s in the city bylaws. But there’s no reason you should do it.
But in this one instance, it is correct to give material comfort to an enemy and join in the fight against the Columbus way.
The Leafs don’t need your help. Hockey does.