February 22nd is a date sports fans remember as the day the U.S. Olympic hockey team upset the Russians in their quest for the gold medal in Lake Placid. Forty years later, that night was celebrated in another memorable game, this time in the NHL as the Carolina Hurricanes pummeled the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto.
As most of the world has heard by now, the star of the night was emergency goaltender David Ayres, who’s a Zamboni driver for the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies, as he held his own especially in the third period, and the Hurricanes surged to a 6-3 win. Ayres was honored at the latest Hurricanes home game, which resulted in a 4-1 loss against the Dallas Stars.
The two countries (U.S. and Canada), as well as hockey fans worldwide will not just remember the happy moment for Mr. Ayres, they’ll be wondering how the Maple Leafs, a star studded team which had a coaching change in the first half of the season, lost to a man they’ve shot at and scored on in practice for years.
Saturday night summarized why Toronto cannot win when it matters most.
Sheldon Keefe generated life into the team after Mike Babcock was fired, and the team looked like it would play better not just for the rest of the season, but long-term too. The issues Keefe had to deal with though haven’t gone away, most notably on defense. The Maple Leafs before Jack Campbell coming in for Michael Hutchinson had the worst goaltenders out of the top starting 66 (give or take). Braden Holtby, who’s been looking like a sieve most of the season averaging 3.1 goals against, was ranked four spots better than both of them. We witnessed the reasons for it come into play this past Saturday night.
The issues though go deeper than just Freddie Anderson and <insert name here> being awful in net. The worst parts of Saturday’s loss came from the bench. Sheldon Keefe screamed at his players as they looked on in disinterest. David Ayres had more shots than William Nylander and six others on the roster did at one point, and that doesn’t feel like the worst of it.
Ayres has a current contract with the Leafs, and he practices against them as often as possible. While Carolina and Toronto are different with their defenses, their respective cultures also vary greatly. Consider it this way, Ayres, who didn’t even play with the Canes for a whole game, was treated warmly and with more positivity by an American based team than the members of a historic Original Six team in the heart of Ontario treat each other.
You can say that this was a slip up after the Leafs took it to the Penguins and shut them out in Pittsburgh 4-0 a few days before that, and yes, their road-trip to Florida this week is one they have to focus on since it deals with divisional play. The thing is though, that’s not going to help when the Leafs came within one goal of tying the game and gave up in the third period. While coach Keefe said it didn’t matter who the Canes had in net because of how well they played, the Leafs players didn’t seem to care that much about being out there to begin with.
There’s a reason why the Boston Bruins get over on this team in the playoffs, and the issue then comes to mentalities. It’s crystal clear now that John Tavares leaving the Islanders was better for New York long-term if he’s been a part of this. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and a good number of players are still young, but some of their roster such as Jake Muzzin should know when it’s time to step up, and have yet to.
So why then say this could be their lowest point in hockey history? It would be dramatic if it wasn’t for the fact that while Toronto hasn’t won a championship since the 1960s, much less with the star-studded roster they have. However, the other six teams have dropped the ball too many times to count and continue to show why, in the words of some analysts on the NHL Network, “players usually don’t pick a Canadian team as their first option.” The six other teams aren’t any closer to winning a Championship than Toronto, and a Canadian team hasn’t won the championship in almost thirty years.
The media have not helped the situation. What the U.S. public has to deal with in football about the NFC East and Patrick Mahomes, Canada does with the Atlantic/Pacific divisions and Conor McDavid. Most of the NHL teams in the U.S. have a lot of passion and great analysis, but they aren’t overtly zealous over two or three teams. That’s a major line of difference that has reared it’s head. Carolina knows while it’s fans and community support them, they have to win the Metropolitan division or somehow sneak into the playoffs. The Leafs have to be one of seven teams that has to deal with constant pressure and mud slinging, win or lose, and it has to stop. This psyche could go as far up as the owner, who feels there have to be constant tweaks, changes or re-builds.
When a loss like this comes along, you know there’s a certain ending for a lot of the roster, but for everyone else, there should be questioning on what else led up to this that goes beyond the roster and general decision making.