By Pat Cancilla
Leafs Nation is breathing a sigh of relief after the Buds finally showed up in preseason play.
Allowances were made when Toronto lost both rookie tournaments — Sept. 8 against Montreal and Sept. 10 against Ottawa — which saw lacklustre performances from the newbies. “They’re just finding their feet,” we told ourselves. “They’ll be fine.”
There was nervous laughter when the sophomores fell 6-2 in the first of back-to-back games against Ottawa Sept. 18. “It was a long summer. They’re just a little rusty,” we rationalized.
But there was all-out panic when Toronto lost its second game against the Senators the following night, this time falling 5-2. Visions of the Stanley Cup parade flowing along Yonge Street disintegrated. “It’s all over,” we cried.
After suffering for so many years, Leafs Nation was terrified that the magic and promise of last season might be gone. Or maybe that was just me…
Leafs Nation (and I) were somewhat placated when the Buds beat Buffalo in back-to-back games Sept. 22 and 23, winning 3-0 and 3-1, respectively. Sure, we were happy with the wins, but it was the Sabres. They didn’t even make the playoffs last season, finishing at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Of course we beat them.
But it wasn’t just that. Something was missing. The Leafs had offense, they had defense, but there seemed to be no spark. The Baby Buds were still good, but had they become boring? Had our teenaged snipers turned into withered old has-beens now they that were 20-somethings?
We were freaking out a little bit.
And then the Leafs played Montreal. And Auston Matthews scored in the first 47 seconds of the first game, stunning Habs’ goalie Al Montoya, who didn’t even react until the puck had seared the net. Then Matthews scored again less than five minutes later, and he actually smirked, showing a cockiness we hadn’t seen from the rookie scoring sensation last season. The 20-year-old was on fire, scoring his third of the night on a breakaway for the hat trick.
Maybe the Buds hadn’t lost their magic after all.
Thirty-eight-year-old veteran Patrick Marleau chipped in a goal, as did the speedy and talented 21-year-old William Nylander, cementing the Leafs 5-1 victory over the hapless Habs, who managed to get just one past the Buds’ No. 1 goalie, Frederik Andersen.
Leafs Nation was now thinking: “Are the Leafs not just good, but better than last year?”
It appeared that the players we had exalted to god-like status last season were back, older, bolder, brasher, tougher — and hungrier than ever. You could see it in their eyes, in their smirks and, oh, yeah, pretty much all the Buds said it during the post-game media scrum: “We’re hungry for more!”
It’s just what we wanted to hear.
Just as hungry as our core roster are the young prospects fighting hard to make the team and delighting Leafs Nation just as much with their speed, skill and toughness.
“These guys here are looking for jobs,” coach Mike Babcock told reporters following the first victory against Montreal. “I think they worked real hard.”
They worked even harder during the second game against the Habs, the Toronto side made up mostly of young prospects who play or will play on the Leafs’ AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. But they looked good enough to compete in the NHL, outplaying Montreal’s regular roster, including Jonathan Drouin and Carey Price, who looked shook in net as the kids fired 28 shots at him, capitalizing on four of them.
As Leafs Nation sarcastically tweeted after the game: “The ‘Marlies’ beat the Habs 4-2!”
Our glee at besting our hated rivals for the second time in two days was made all the sweeter knowing it wasn’t even Toronto’s top snipers but three defensemen — Connor Carrick, Martin Marincin and Andreas Borgman — who struck the first blows against Montreal.
Andreas Johnsson scored the final Leafs’ goal and assisted on both Marincin’s and Borgman’s goals.
The two Swedes, Borgman and Johnsson, have played well for the Leafs in the preseason, and it would be great if they could crack the regular roster. But with Toronto’s glut of talented forwards, Johnsson may have a tougher time making it than Borgman.
The big defenseman has been very impressive so far and his confidence is sky high. During the post-game media scrum, Borgman was asked what it was like to keep up with the Habs’ Drouin. He answered, without a hint of sarcasm, “I don’t think it was that hard.”
Other top prospects who have impressed in the preseason so far, also from Sweden, are defencsemen Calle Rosén and Timothy Liljegren and forward Carl Grundstrom, along with Canadian-born defenseman Travis Dermott and Finnish forward Miro Aaltonen.
(At press time, the Leafs had yet to announce their final roster.)
Yes, this is just the preseason, and maybe the games don’t “count” yet, but no matter what happens now, two things are for sure: Leafs Nation is stoked and the parade is back on.