Maybe fans will understand it if the most promising Maple Leafs season in years is ultimately undone by, say, less-than-optimal goaltending.
Even as netminder Jack Campbell reeled off a franchise-record 10th straight win on Wednesday to improve to a perfect 10-0 during his injury-hampered season, uncertainty around Toronto’s goaltending has been a recurring storyline as No. 1 Frederik Andersen remains sidelined.
And maybe it will make some sense if the Leafs don’t live up to their vast potential on account of, say, subpar special teams. Because the power play and penalty kill, as good as both ought to be, have also suffered through some alarming lulls, not to mention some bad luck.
But it’ll be a lot harder to take if the hopes of this season are somehow torn apart, not by a design flaw or an untimely collapse, but by the coronavirus. At a moment when team president Brendan Shanahan appeared to have inoculated the franchise from the notorious Blue and White disease, it would qualify as a cruel shame if the beginning of the end turned out to be an untimely run-in with the Brazilian variant, or whichever mutation of COVID-19 happens to be spreading through the populace with the playoffs a little more than a month in the offing.
Sadly, that was the jolt of recognition that had to shoot through Toronto’s front office Wednesday afternoon around the time it was announced that Leafs winger William Nylander would miss that evening’s home game against the Montreal Canadiens after Nylander was determined to have had a close contact with a potential COVID-positive case. The team said in a statement that Nylander was isolating and would be re-evaluated Thursday after the results of further testing. And maybe there was comfort in the notion that the NHL determined Wednesday’s game — a 3-2 win in which the Leafs held off a late push from the visitors — could proceed because Nylander, though he had been a full participant at the morning skate, wasn’t deemed to be contagious after taking into account the time of his potential contact and the virus’s incubation period.
Still, given the COVID-related mess currently unfurling in an NHL dressing room in Vancouver, the development was worrisome. Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said the Leafs got wind of a “situation” around lunch time Wednesday and credited Nylander with being “up front” about a potential problem. While Keefe said it was important to emphasize that Nylander “didn’t break any protocols here or do anything outside of the rules,” the Leafs can only cross their fingers that the case turns out to be nothing more than a timely refresher on the importance of remaining vigilant.
“It’s just a reminder for guys. Hopefully it’s nothing and it’s just precautionary,” said defenceman T.J. Brodie, who scored his first goal as a Leaf.
Certainly Wednesday’s victory, in which Campbell made 32 saves to set the franchise record for the longest win streak by a goaltender and tied the NHL record for the longest win streak to begin a season, was only the latest proof the Leafs are a viable competitive force. They’ve won five straight now. And if the playoffs began today they’d face the Canadiens, whom they’ve defeated in three of four meetings this season.
“We must be playing well. To win 10 in a row, to just to get one win is a big deal because it’s a tough league,” Campbell said. “It’s super special and an honour and something I’ll be able to look back on … But right now it’s back to work.”
Said Auston Matthews, who scored his league-leading 28th goal and added an assist: “”I’m just so happy for him. He’s such an amazing person and he brings a lot of joy in everybody’s lives and in the locker room and I just couldn’t be happier for him.”
There was less happiness in Vancouver on Wednesday when the Canucks announced that some 25 players and coaches have now tested positive in the largest COVID-19 outbreak of the NHL season — one that apparently involves a particularly contagious variant of the virus. Never mind that players in Vancouver, as with every team, have been submitting to daily testing for months, or that NHL teams have built what seems to be a formidable firewall built of plentiful PPE and protocols and other precautions.
As the Canucks acknowledged in their statement, contact tracing has since determined that it only took one unnamed individual connected to the team to be infected in a virus hot spot — or a “public exposure location,” in the parlance — for the virus to essentially ravage the bulk of the roster. Even the NHL’s best efforts and well-financed protective measures couldn’t stop this particular spread.
“This is a stark reminder of how quickly the virus can spread and its serious impact, even among healthy, young athletes,” the Canucks statement said.
Indeed, the Canucks’ outbreak appears to have begun a little more than a week ago, when forward Adam Gaudette was pulled from practice after his test result came back positive on March 30. A day later, the league postponed Vancouver’s game against Calgary when defenceman Travis Hamonic and a member of the coaching staff were added to the league’s COVID protocol list. Now, six postponed games and multiple positive tests later, it’s difficult for some to imagine how the Canucks are going to muster the oomph to return to the ice to complete the remaining 19 games of the 56-game schedule.
Until recently, Canada’s teams were proving successful in their efforts to keep the virus at bay. But late last month the Canadiens had four home games postponed after forward Jesper Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia were placed on the NHL COVID-19 protocol list. The Canadiens succeeded in keeping the virus from insinuating itself any deeper down the depth chart, and they had won three of their four games in the wake of their COVID pause heading into Wednesday.
The health of players and coaches and family is the most important factor here. But given how we’ve determined that hockey is important enough to be played in the midst of a pandemic, nobody with an eye on the playoffs can minimize the menace this virus poses to a team’s competitive hopes. For the Canucks, who came into Wednesday with a 2.5 per cent probability of making the playoffs, according to MoneyPuck.com, it’s fair to say the season was lost long before the virus loudly announced its presence at the rink. For the first-place Maple Leafs, there’s more at stake.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened,” said forward Zach Hyman, who scored the winner. “But I think that our staff did a great job managing the situation and hopefully we’ll have (Nylander) back shortly.”
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk