The NHL schedule shows the Toronto Maple Leafs begin a long home-stand Thursday night against the Florida Panthers.
But it really started Wednesday night when forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner took to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts stage in the National Ballet of Canada’s annual production of The Nutcracker. Their teammates were expecting Matthews’s and Marner’s turns as Cannon Dolls to provide enough comedy material for them to get their run of seven of their next eight games at home off to a lighthearted start.
“I think they’ll be outstanding,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “So they’ll have a good laugh. And then we’ll have a good laugh at it.”
The appearance by Matthews and Marner is part of the National Ballet’s tradition of having a couple of celebrities play the roles of the Cannon Dolls, who are dressed as Russian Petrushka dolls and help shoot a cannon. While there can be some dancing with the role, it seems to depend on the nerve of the celebrity. Most of the comedy comes with the colourful costumes.
The show was not televised but both the Sportsnet and TSN networks were expected to be on hand to record the highlights. So no matter what happened, Matthews and Marner can expect their moment to go viral on social media.
“Try not to do anything stupid, I guess,” Matthews said of how he plans to work against any viral blowback.
But his teammates will be watching closely for anything to exploit in the dressing room on Thursday.
“I’ll be keeping a close eye sitting behind the scenes seeing exactly what they do,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said. “We’ll see how things play out.”
Well, Matthews retorted, “He asked me for tickets. Now he’s not going any more, he told me. I don’t know where he’s going to be watching it from.”
While Matthews has a history of spectacular debuts, going back to his four goals in his first NHL game two years ago, this one induced a bad case of nerves.
“Yeah, I couldn’t sleep last night,” he said. “It should be fun. I hope they don’t make us do too much stuff. But I’m excited. It should be an interesting experience.”
Neither Matthews nor Marner have seen The Nutcracker live, although Matthews has a vague memory of seeing a movie version. And neither got much in the way of preparation.
“Show up 30 minutes before, get fitted and we’ll hear then,” Matthews said. “Gonna have to mentally prepare at home, kind of.”
Matthews is still a bit shy in the confidence department. “I don’t know, I don’t want to ruin the play,” he said. “Everybody keeps telling me how big a deal this is. It’s the National Ballet and it’s sold out. It’s like a big thing.”
Also a big thing is the Leafs’ home-stand. While they head into it on the strength of an impressive 7-2 wipeout of the New Jersey Devils on the road Tuesday night, which got them out of a funk in which they lost four of their previous five games, their work at home needs improvement.
Even though three of those four recent losses were on the road, the Leafs still hold a gaudy 13-5-1 road record. Their home mark, 9-5-1, is not bad but should be better if the Leafs want to challenge the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Atlantic Division lead.
“I don’t think we’ve been [as] good at home as we would want to be,” Matthews said. “This is a good little segment for us to really capitalize on some points and get that home advantage. We’ve travelled a lot the last few weeks so it’s a good feeling to be at home.”
The run starts Thursday with the Florida Panthers, who embarrassed the Leafs last week with an overtime win on their disastrous southern trip. Panthers centre Aleksander Barkov was a one-man wrecking crew in that game and Babcock does not want a repeat performance.
“I don’t worry about the [home] stretch as much as I worry about tomorrow,” Babcock said Wednesday. “Florida beat us the other night. We weren’t prepared at the start and they outplayed us. We’d like to start on time, like we did [against the Devils]. Barkov ran our show last game; dominated us basically. So we’ve got to look after that.”