In pedagogical terms, the Toronto Maple Leafs are dedicated followers of the continuing education movement – they’re always learning something.
On Sunday night, the Leafs learned that the Columbus Blue Jackets hold the puck exceptionally well. They learned they aren’t much good at responding to that style of play. And they learned they have a lot of learning to do.
“There are good things we have to look at, and areas we have to improve on, and we’ll do that tomorrow at practice,” Morgan Rielly said.
This wasn’t the Soviets rolling into Montreal in ‘72. How Columbus plays is not a state secret. Yet somehow the Leafs were surprised.
It’s not clear how something that should have been handled during the month of preparation that preceded Sunday’s 2-0 loss can now be resolved in one day. What are you going to tell people? “Guys, whenever Seth Jones drapes himself on top of you like a 200-pound weighted blanket, just pretend he’s not there.”
No team in sports hears more noise about its faults than the Leafs. The top guys are overpaid. The defence is porous. The goalie is brittle. The coach is 12 years old.
That’s the line right up until they win a few games, and then they are the greatest geniuses ever to touch ice, right up to and including Amundsen. Lose a couple and we replay the scene.
But if Toronto has a real problem, it only becomes apparent at this point in a campaign. When the games start mattering, the Leafs’ opponents always seem better prepared than they are. Whether it’s Washington, Boston or Columbus, those teams have passed the learning stage and entered the applying-what-you’ve-learned stage.
The Blue Jackets are the type par excellence. They are not a fun team to watch. Their coach is not a fun person to banter with. They have no boldface names (on offence, at least). But everyone on that team appears to understand what they are meant to be doing.
If they worked in an office, Columbus is the sort where everyone gets their paperwork filed on time and heads out for a beer at 5 p.m. The Leafs are the sort where everyone has to pull a week’s worth of all-nighters when the big project is due.
The seeming big change between the Mike Babcock and Sheldon Keefe eras is that the stars will now be given a chance to be stars. Babcock became notorious for his unwillingness to let his youngest players see much of the ice late in tight playoff games.
On Sunday, Auston Matthews played nearly 25 minutes – far and away the most of any forward. Jones had him in a virtual arm-bar for nearly every one of them. The one great chance Matthews had came during a shift in which Jones was on the bench.
That strikes me as good opening gambit on Columbus’s part. Use your best player to eliminate their best player.
This is where the chess match was supposed to start. Instead, the Leafs played checkers. All the other residents of Toronto’s Multimillionaire’s Row – John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander – took the night off, but decided to come in to work to watch the game anyway. That was supportive of them.
You could not pin the fault on any particular person – a favourite pastime of Torontonians.
Matthews was ineffective, but not disengaged. Goalie Frederik Andersen was excellent but for one moment, which was the decisive one. A defence famous for its collective brain cramping had no howlers.
The Leafs weren’t bad. They just weren’t good.
More worryingly for them, Columbus wasn’t anything other than the team it always is, aside from the increase in intensity you expect from playoff hockey.
Through their many modern iterations, the Leafs have never been what you’d call great at handling disappointment. They have the tendency to go squirrelly whenever the night’s plan goes sideways (though you’re starting to wonder if there ever is much of a plan aside from “score a bunch of goals and then raise the Mission Accomplished banner”).
When things get really bad, they have a tendency to do what the Toronto fan base and media do to them – obsess over side issues that have little or nothing to do with winning a playoff series.
That leads us to the most combative moment of Sunday’s game, which went down 15 minutes after it had ended.
Upon being asked a question by the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons, Matthews went all Howard Beale.
“First of all, it’s unfortunate that I’m getting a question from you at this point, Steve. I just wanted to say I didn’t really appreciate the article you wrote about me a couple of months ago. It was very unethical, to be honest. But moving along …”
Simmons broke the story that Matthews had contracted COVID-19 in June.
There is no journalistic world in which reporting that test result is “unethical.” Matthews is a public figure. We are in the midst of a health emergency.
At the time, Canadians were debating whether or not the NHL could safely import a bunch of guys from outside the country into the midst of that health emergency. One of the most famous of them had, while just going about his business, contracted the virus.
Under the circumstances, I cannot think of anything more newsworthy.
But fair enough. Matthews is fully entitled to complain about whatever he likes, wherever he likes, however he likes. This sort of to-and-fro is what makes the work fun.
But I’m not sure that immediately after his team was put in a headlock and given a three-hour noogie was the time to do it. Rightly or wrongly, it gives the impression the Leafs’ top player is not exactly laser-focused on the task at hand.
If Matthews is angry – and he ought to be – he should be angry at Columbus head coach John Tortorella. He’s the one who gave you and all your buddies a tactical spanking on Sunday. If you’re not careful, while your team is still in the information-gathering portion of the series, Columbus will have won it.
Eventually, the Leafs will have to learn the only thing that matters in hockey – that winning is its own justification. There is no other sort.