13 Musings: Leafs show a little fight to beat Islanders

Do the Maple Leafs have a killer instinct? The answer has largely been no these past seven years. Even president Brendan Shanahan admitted that much a couple of playoff eliminations ago.

Can they develop one? For their sake, let’s hope the answer is yes.

It didn’t look like they had one Saturday against Montreal. It was another head-scratching loss to another team at the bottom of the standings.

The Leafs have squandered points to lesser opponents all year. Montreal and Arizona have each beaten them twice. The Sharks, Ducks and Red Wings have registered wins, lost points the Leafs may end up regretting if Tampa Bay passes them for home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And they looked like they were going down the same path Monday against the Islanders, a listless first period. You could say they played down to their opponent, but their opponent — a team with two wins in January — actually outplayed them.

But that turnaround in the second period was quite something. Four goals. William Nylander had two of them, and two assists. John Tavares had a monster midframe.

So was that a killer-instinct turning point? Was the first intermission a kind of look-in-the-mirror moment where they asked what they were really all about?

Some nights, this team can win without trying. They really had to try Monday. They did and they succeeded. That’s the kind of effort they’ll need to win four of seven games come April. But let’s not get carried away. They’ll be facing a better team than the Islanders.

As always if you have a question, email me at askkevinmcgran@gmail.com and I’ll answer it in the next Mailbag. Now to the 13 Musings. But first a trivia question: Who did Bruce Boudreau score his first career NHL goal against? (Answer at the bottom.)

1. With Dryden Hunt now with the Marlies, is it possible that Kyle Dubas could have lost two Denis Malgin trades?

2. The Leafs have had two penalty shots in recent games. William Nylander and Michael Bunting both missed. I asked Sheldon Keefe if he’d rather have a choice between a penalty shot and a power play. “It’s exciting for the fans, but there’s times for sure you wish you had the option,” he said. “Not because it’s anything to do with the player. But sometimes it’s the time of the game and the score.”

3. Before he was sidelined by shoulder surgery. Montreal’s gifted young scorer, Cole Caufield, said he still watches video of Auston Matthews and David Pastrnak to pick up tips on how to shoot. “I’m always watching hockey, trying to pick things that they do. They are special players. Fun to watch. They are all-around solid. Not just goal-scorers. They put up a lot of points, but they do it the right way. A guy like Matthews plays the full 200 feet. He does a lot more than just score.”

4. Caufield had practised the day before his season was shutdown, and shutting him down came as a bit of surprise in Montreal. But season-ending injuries or surgery for important players are endemic for teams in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes. Ottawa Senators shut down Josh Norris (shoulder). Zach Werenski (shoulder) is out for the season in Columbus. Cam Atkinson (neck) is gone in Philadelphia. Chicago and San Jose don’t have similar injuries, but their best players (Patrick Kane and Erik Karlsson, respectively) are likely to be traded.

5. That’s just a reminder that players and coaches don’t tank. But general managers? They can find a way to make it look accidentally on purpose.

6. Watched the documentary on Harold Ballard by Jason Priestley, “Offside: The Harold Ballard Story,” and, yes, that era was as bad as I remember.

7. One weird part — nothing to do with Ballard — was watching ex-GM Gerry McNamara still trying to justify the 1982 trade of Darryl Sittler: “Darryl was starting to get up in age. He was still a good player. But try to get equal value when you have to trade somebody and you (only) have a certain (number of trading partners).” He blamed Sittler’s no-trade clause on the poor return.

8. The trade was Sittler to Philadelphia for Rich Costello, a second-round pick used to select Peter Ihnacak, and future considerations (Ken Strong). Sittler played three-and-a-half more years, scoring 91 goals. Costello played two games for the Leafs, Strong played 11. The drafting of Ihnacak (102 goals in 417 games over eight seasons) saves it from being the worst Leafs trade.

9. That’s still a battle between 1988’s Russ Courtnall-for-John Kordic deal and 1989’s surrender of a first-round pick (Scott Niedermayer, third overall) for Tom Kurvers.

10. Yikes, the 1980s were terrible in Toronto. Only the New Jersey Devils (.357 winning percentage) were worse than the Leafs (.388) over the 800 games of the ’80s. The Leafs missed the playoffs four times that decade — a difficult feat when 16 of 21 teams made the post-season — and won only two rounds. How did the team’s fan base make it to the 1990s?

11. Not to give anything away, but the documentary ends with something I’ve never heard of: The Curse of Harold Ballard. That’s apparently the reason the Leafs can’t win. Ballard certainly doomed them for a generation, but an actual curse, like the Curse of the Bambino that the Red Sox put up with? I think they just made that up. But I can run with it.

12. Then there was this gem of a line from late, great Toronto Star hockey writer Frank Orr: “Waiting for the Maple Leafs to win at this point in time is a bit like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa.”

13. I may need to adopt this for Game 7s. If enough people still know who Jimmy Hoffa is. Or was. Or, maybe, still is.

Trivia Answer: Jim Rutherford.


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