And if you’d glanced at the NHL standings as he spoke, you might have figured the Maple Leafs head coach was waxing sarcastically. When Saturday morning broke, after all, no team in the NHL had fewer than Toronto’s 27 points. The only thing that kept Babcock’s team from being hockey’s worst were four games in hand on the disintegrating Columbus Blue Jackets, another member of a bottom-of-the-league 27-point club that also included the Anaheim Ducks.
So maybe Babcock meant “a great day to be alive” in grand-scheme human terms — as in, we’re all on the right side of the grass, so let’s enjoy it while we can. Or maybe it was a country music reference. Babcock has more than once acknowledged his love for the genre, and there’s a Travis Tritt tune called “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive.”
But probably not. Indeed, if you listened to Babcock deliver his morning-skate address, you soon realized the coach’s infectious, relentless positivity was wholly hockey-related.
Maybe a dose of relentless positivity was all that was needed for Jonathan Benier, the beleaguered Toronto goaltender who hadn’t won a game since April, to finally find himself in net on the night of a victory.
Maybe relentless positivity was all that was needed for Michael Grabner, the always fleet-footed and occasionally stone-handed winger, to score twice on Saturday. After managing just one goal in his first 26 games, Grabner now has three in his past two.
Certainly Babcock’s driving, aspiring urgency has been at the core of this rarest of Maple Leafs circumstances. In the 99-season history of the franchise, there’ve undoubtedly been many occasions when a last-place Maple Leafs team was a drowning mess, choked with panic, riddled with dysfunction. But 31 games into a bottom-of-the-league season, Babcock’s Leafs aren’t some sinking team. They keep offering louder and louder hints they’re a rising one. And Saturday’s bullet-proof performance against a fearsome, heavy Kings team that had won seven of its past nine games and no less than two of the past four Stanley Cups — it was just the latest bit of evidence that they’re moving in the correct direction.
The Leafs are not yet Cup contenders; they’re not even playoff hopefuls. And the win-loss record is still not much to look at. But this is a city that’s seen the early-season win-loss record lie. At the very same point last season — precisely 31 games in — it’s worth remembering the standings made the Maple Leafs look like world beaters. They’d won 10 of their past 12 games. They were coming off a 6-2 win over the league’s best team, the Anaheim Ducks. But they were getting by on timely scoring while getting outshot regularly. But you know how the story ended.
This season the Leafs are playing a polar-opposite style. They’ve gone from Randy Carlyle-styled gamblers to Babcock-drilled grinders. On Saturday, when they also got a pair of goals from Leo Komarov and an NHL first from Byron Froese, the members of the home team did something they could have never done a year ago. They carved out precious possession time in the L.A. zone by running the cycle game about as forcefully as they ever have. Their 34-28 advantage on the shot clock, not an unusual stat in a year in which Toronto’s shot differential has ceased being a negative-number liability, marked the fourth time in five games in which they’ve outshot their opponent.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that they’ve now come away with at least a point in five straight games. At Toronto’s best, they’re playing the way the top teams in the league play — witness their 8-4-1 record against the Western Conference, including wins over St. Louis, Nashville and Dallas (twice). When they get passable goaltending, they’re a credible team.
Certainly they’re a better-tempered one than we’ve seen in recent times.
“In past years when we’ve lost some games, it’s been like walking on eggshells in here,” said Peter Holland, the Leafs centreman. “Whereas this year there’s way more optimism and way more positivity. We know we’re playing a better style of hockey. We know every time we go out and play we have a chance to win. It’s just a better feeling around here.”
Nobody was feeling better than Bernier on Saturday. He hadn’t managed a shutout in four days short of a calendar year — unless you count the trio of blank slates he racked up during his conditioning stint in the minors. He hadn’t been in net for an NHL win since April 5. The ensuing eight months and 15 days had seen him navigate career highs and lows. He’d earned a high-water pay day, a two-year contract worth $ 4.15 million a year. But he’d also seen his confidence gutted while his NHL-worthiness was questioned.
“When things are going real bad for you, you start thinking everyone’s against you when — let’s be honest — it’s way better for us when he’s good,” Babcock said of Bernier after the game. “I’m real proud of him. It would be easy just to give up on yourself. Obviously he didn’t.”
Said Bernier, smiling as he described his professional ordeal: “I’ve had a tough time.”
There’s an old sporting saying: You are what your record says you are. But sometimes the saying’s wrong. Sometimes the record lies. A year ago, 31 games in, Toronto’s record said they were three points out of first place in the East. It said they were nearly elite. They couldn’t have been further from it. Even after Bernier’s shutout, even after another win, Saturday night ended with Toronto’s 29 points still being the lowest total in the league, this on an evening that also saw the Blue Jackets and Ducks both win.
As Babcock might have said, though, it was like a great day to be alive, even while residing in the NHL basement.