SAN JOSE – The Toronto Maple Leafs victory procession off the Silicon Valley ice and down the hallway to the visitors’ room — another ho-hum win under their belts — had all the emotion of an app update.
There were no whoops or cheers. No stick claps or chatter.
Straight faces. White uniforms. Large, armoured bodies.
In gathering their 13th victory over their past 15 attempts, November’s most consistent hockey team could be mistaken for Stormtroopers taking an Imperial March down SAP Center’s black-rubber carpet.
The mark of a good team? They no longer get excited over regular-season wins. Nah. They’ve come to expect them.
They can examine a 4-1 road win over the San Jose Sharks and only see its flaws.
“I felt like our game was touch-and-go, to be honest with you,” said Wayne Simmonds, who scored the winner way back in Period 1. “We weren’t assertive enough. We didn’t get pucks deep; we didn’t grind them down the way we should have. In change, they came back at us, and Woller [Joseph Woll] had to be unbelievable there in the third. So, there’s things for us to work on. By no means are we playing perfect hockey right now, and we know that.”
Sunshine and relaxation can be alluring temptations when work allows you to escape the bitterness of a late November in Toronto, a respite from winter’s first hard bite.
So, yes, the Leafs coaching staff had considered giving their troops a day off Thursday for U.S. Thanksgiving. Had they gone that route, their generosity could be justified as a reward for the club’s hot streak.
Instead, they ducked out of the warmth and into the rink, where they’ve punched the clock daily during a California swing described, to a man, as “a business trip.”
The team hunkered down together in their hotel Thursday night. They ordered in turkey, mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts (Justin Holl’s personal favourite), watched a little American football, and rode the tryptophan into a decent night’s sleep.
Friday was a workday, after all.
And free time, whenever that arrives, will be a ton more fun when it feels hard earned.
“We’re at work. We didn’t come out here for vacation. We’re here to play hockey, right? So, we don’t expect to get days off and enjoy the sun and all that type of stuff. That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to play,” Simmonds asserted. “We’re one of the hardest-practising teams that I’ve been on in my career anyway, and we’re having success. So, why change it? You practice like you play; you play like you practice.
“Just the amount of skill that we have on this team, it’s almost harder to practice than it is playing a game sometimes. So, I think that’s a good thing.”
The Maple Leafs’ new businesslike approach — farewell, relaxed dress code, we hardly knew ye — has been translating to the ice throughout this four-game roadie.
Toronto has now outscored its opponents 13-3 on this trip, which concludes Sunday in Anaheim.
Sure, one could dispute the quality of competition, but the Leafs have a history of playing down to weaker foes. And that, most certainly, has not been the case lately.
“Maybe we’ve learned from past years, where we’ve played a couple of really good games and then we just relax and take our foot off the gas,” William Nylander said. “That stretch [in October] when we were struggling, I think that was good for us to learn.”
Despite skating without Ondrej Kase, despite dressing goalie prospect Woll (now 3-0-0) in his first non-back-to-back situation, and despite letting the game flow get loose on them, the Leafs were never in danger of letting the Sharks take over.
Heck, Nylander made good on the night’s first shot. A silky backhand deke of James Reimer when the game was all of 32 seconds old busted Nylander’s seven-game goal drought and set a tone.
And when Nick Bonino responded with a double-five-hole snipe that beat both T.J. Brodie and Woll through the legs, the 1-1 tie was short-lived.
Simmonds, filling in for the injured Kase, responded on the very next shift, tipping home a puck after a passing sequence with new linemates David Kämpf and Nick Ritchie.
“We’re looking for him to not change really from what he’s done; Simmer’s done a really good job,” coach Sheldon Keefe said pre-game of the promotion. Then, some foreshadowing. “Like a lot of players that play lower in the lineup, you’re looking for a little bit more when it’s available — and tonight it’s available.”
Auston Matthews notched his ninth early in the second period, and Tavares drove the nail toward the conclusion of the Leafs’ first frighteningly in-sync man-advantage.
“Just a clinical power-play,” Keefe said. “[Assistant coach] Spencer Carbery did an unbelievable job of preparing our team for that [penalty kill] pressure today. Then it’s up to our players to execute, and they executed at an extremely high level. When you have a good plan executed at that level, that’s the result that you get.”
On the flip side, the Maple Leafs’ vastly improved penalty kill limited the Sharks to a single shot throughout San Jose’s three power plays.
Toronto’s fourth on Reimer chased the ex-Leaf midway through the game.
And although Adin Hill was solid in relief and the Sharks pressed late, the damage was too deep to recover.
Woll stood tall during a sloppy final 10 minutes, his busiest and most impressive sequence as an NHL goalie. And the Leafs took care of business once again.
“We did what we had to do. Came out with the two points,” Simmonds said. “That’s all that matters.”
Naturally, Saturday is another practice day.
Fox’s Fast 5
• With the Leafs rolling, Travis Dermott has been stuck getting the Holl treatment. Friday marked his fourth straight healthy scratch.
Coach Keefe is constantly communicating with his Group of Seven, knowing one will always be unhappy to sit.
“We believe having seven defencemen that can play is a strength for us as a team at this point, but it is certainly something we have to manage,” said Keefe, who encouraged Dermott to remain sharp after Thursday’s practice.
“We thought Justin Holl was going to have to sit maybe one game. He ended up sitting five. Generally, we’ve tried to keep the lineup rolling here. It is a daily discussion. We have just felt that we want to keep it the same here for the last little bit.”
• Scary moment in the first frame as Morgan Rielly blocked a Timo Meier blast with the inside of his lower right leg. Hobbled, Rielly left the game temporarily but returned before the period ended.
• Keefe had a discipline chat with Nick Ritchie heading into this season after the winger averaged 0.66 PIM per game last year in Boston. He’s up to 0.86 PIM per game in Toronto. Not a big deal when your team can’t lose and is killing off penalties with ease. But it’s something to monitor.
• Evander Kane, the Sharks’ leading scorer in 2020-21, will be eligible to return from his 21-game suspension after the weekend. The scuttlebutt here says he’ll hit the waiver wire. We’ll see.
• Rielly flashed back to what it was like sharing a dressing room with Reimer:
“It was just his everyday smile and his demeanour. I used to think that his cheeks would get sore by the end of the day just from having a smile on his face for so long. That’s just the type of person he was. I was lucky to be around him when I was a young player, and I got to experience a teammate who just loved life that much. I think that’s a good influence to have.”