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VANCOUVER—The ceremony was nice, even beautiful. A proud, heartfelt essay voiced by fellow Swede and former Vancouver Canucks captain Marcus Naslund. The presentation of a silver puck from teammate Derek Dorsett, who was forced to retire this week due to a spinal condition. Daniel Sedin’s wife and kids. Sedin hit 1,000 points this week, and it gave this franchise and this city a chance to appreciate someone they have come to truly love.
And then the game began and the Canucks won it in the first 12 minutes, more or less. The Toronto Maple Leafs had a mandated day off in Vancouver Friday, no morning skate Saturday, and managed to extend that time off to the first period. The result was a 2-0 deficit that turned into a 2-1 loss to Vancouver to end what was otherwise a fine road trip. Was this a lesson? Depends who you asked.
“I mean, I think we’re past those lesson games now,” said Auston Matthews, who had four shots on goal, and a save in the third period on Brock Boeser with an empty net that extended Toronto’s hopes. “We had enough of those last year. I think you’ve just got to make sure you come to the rink and work hard. It’s not a lesson. We know what we need to do. We just need to do it.”
“We’ve had (60-minute performances) before,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who whiffed on a late chance before producing the shot that hit James van Riemsdyk’s stick to give Toronto its lone goal. “I think we know we can do it, but we have to do it every night. I mean, you look at the best teams, they do it every single night, and we have to be one of those teams.”
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The potential is there. After the first period, the Leafs out-shot Vancouver 25-9. They threw themselves into the battles they lost in the first, skated like maniacs, owned the puck. But goaltender Frederik Andersen had missed a shot by Markus Granlund that skimmed off Nikita Zaitsev’s stick 4:52 into the game, and six minutes later the Sedins had masterfully orchestrated a 6-on-5 on a delayed penalty to Roman Polak that ended with Alex Edler’s shot sailing past a Polak-screened Andersen. Polak is valued as a penalty killer, and bless the big Czech man’s honesty and grit. But he is an issue, all in all.
And that being said, this Leafs team looked like it didn’t handle that extended time off very well, for whatever reason.
“I’m greedy. The rest (after the start) didn’t matter,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “There was no morning skate this morning or nothing, and we’ve shown how we handle that. You know, the bottom line is if you want to be a real good team you’ve got to play every day, you’ve got to play every night, and you’ve got to start on time if you want to be successful.”
“You spend the whole night giving away two points because you aren’t prepared.”
Centre Tyler Bozak was unavailable due to illness, which pulled Josh Leivo into the lineup and pushed Patrick Marleau back to centre. It was just the ninth man-game lost to injury for the team all season, which is exceptional luck. The Leafs already had the first two games of this trip in their back pockets, and had points in 10 of their previous 12, for 19 of a possible 24. Well, make it 19 of 26.
This Leafs team has done good work, but has still just shown flashes of what they could become. There are times you wonder whether this team, in the back of its collective mind, thinks it might be playing between 90 and 100 games this season. Maybe these Leafs are still learning how to manage a long season, without spending too much time revving in the red.
If you wanted lessons, there were some to be found. Sedin’s milestone underlined one of the most remarkable numbers in sports: Daniel has compiled 0.8002 points per game in 1,251 games; his twin brother Henrik, 0.8214 in 1,274. It works out to a difference of about 1.7 points per 82-game season. Naslund and others talked about how the twins have given everything they had for all 17 seasons, maxed it out. In so doing, they have become civic and franchise icons. No matter your city, that is something to aspire to.
“They’ve been stars and they’ve been stars for a long time,” Babcock said. “Stars as people probably first; they’ve been unbelievable in this community and unbelievable for Sweden. Every young guy I’ve ever talked to who played in Vancouver raves about their work ethic, their commitment to the community, and the kind of people they are. And then unbelievable careers, to say the least. I still believe, power play-wise and on the cycle, they’re as good as anybody in hockey. Father Time is always going to catch up with you, that’s just the way it is.”
This Leafs team believes it can belong to the league’s elite, and that’s not unjustified. They have been healthy; they have talent to burn. But their habits can still be sharpened, and there are still lessons to be learned. Father Time isn’t close, and the road is long. But you want to become iconic? You build it, one piece at a time.