The Toronto Maple Leafs were a Marvel character in Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They were the Incredible Hulk. The problem? They were also the Hulk’s alter ego, Dr. Bruce Banner.
The Maple Leafs were the Hulk to start the game, so much so that they should’ve worn the green St. Pat’s jerseys. Toronto’s forwards were flying through the neutral zone, the defence wasn’t giving up an inch, and the goaltending looked unshakeable.
It seemed all of the players had picked it up a notch after losing Jake Muzzin during Game 2. The neutral zone that Columbus jammed up so effectively in Games 1 and 2 now acted like a slingshot for Toronto to come roaring in a setup plays. They had Columbus chasing them all over the ice. If a Blue Jacket touched the puck he was often met with two Leafs in his face.
Despite the near-perfect start, Columbus was still very much in the game and then the bounces started going Toronto’s way too. The Leafs opened the scoring with a Cody Ceci shorthanded goal. The Leafs came out even stronger in the second period. In the words of the big green guy, “Hulk Smash.” William Nylander scored a pretty power-play goal. Then Nick Robertson scored his first NHL goal, and the celebration was on – Toronto wins!
The Game is Not Over
But wait, look at the clock. There are still 31 minutes and 12 seconds remaining. Suddenly the big green guy was gone; in his place stood a confused, little man in tattered clothes. Dr. Banner was much smaller, much less intense, and just more comfortable to be around. Almost instantly, the Leafs superhero performance disappeared.
Like in a comic book, strange things started to happen. Forty-five seconds after the third goal, Tyson Barrie took a tripping penalty. Barrie served eight penalties in 70 regular-season games this season. I was uncharacteristic for him especially given the situation where the last thing you want to do is give Columbus a spark.
Halfway into the ensuing power play, the Blue Jackets’ Nick Foligno was creating havoc in the crease. Frederik Andersen made a save and put his catching glove, with the puck inside, directly into Foligno’s face. Andersen is well known for having ice in his veins, rarely showing emotion and never taunting. Seconds after the power play ended, the Blue Jackets scored.
Although it was 3-1 after two periods, the Canadian broadcast was still celebrating the Leafs win. The first part of the intermission report was all about Robertson’s goal. After the hosts gushed about the youngster, they went to interview a Leafs’ player. A sweaty, exhausted Travis Dermott came on the screen. This guy was one of the six Leafs’ defensemen who’d stepped up in the wake of losing Muzzin. But the big question to Dermott was: “first and foremost, what is it like on the bench when you see 18-year-old Nick Robertson get his first NHL goal in such a big moment?”
First and foremost? That should’ve been the last thing on anyone’s mind. To be clear, this is a five-game series against an extremely tough and very well-coached Blue Jackets team. Toronto just barely made it out of the second period. Maybe the question should’ve been: “how are you going to survive the last 20 minutes against a very motivated team that’s getting a tongue lashing for John Tortorella?“
Toronto started the third on a power play, but they looked sloppy and ill-prepared for the swarm that was a very driven and inspired Columbus team. It was just a matter of time. Columbus tied it, and Toronto was lucky to hold on to play an overtime period.
The reality check swept through Leafs Nation and even the broadcast studio in Toronto. The jubilance was gone. Kevin Bieksa, an analyst on the Canadian broadcast, tried to make sense of the turn of events. “It seemed like Toronto, in full control, up 3-0, they are playing great, we are pumping their tires in the intermission, and then they go out, and everybody felt the momentum shift.”
Toronto attempted to gain that momentum back in the overtime period, with a couple of nice shots and a few good scrambles in front of the net. But, Columbus was well on its way. They’d dug themselves out of a huge hole, and you knew they were going to complete the comeback. For the Leafs to win two in a row and advance in this series, they may want to forget the tire-pumping and find that Hulk mentality again. And, next time, keep smashing.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.