Toronto Star


Chris Kreider and the Rangers hit town to take on the Leafs tonight but Tuesday’s OT drama vs. Jets will be hard to top.

- Rosie DiManno

On a gym-fit day off the ice, we give you the Toronto Maple Leafs in three acts. Because, amidst the warp speed of a season’s final 23 games unfolding and with the team hosting the New York Rangers on Thursday night, there was immense savouring Wednesday of what had transpired the evening previous — a rollicking 5-4 W over Winnipeg, moving into third place in the Atlantic Division as the standings-hustle shifts from day to day. It deserves a second look.


For the second time this year, the endlessly consternat­ing defenceman — when he’s good, he’s very good; when he’s bad, he’s maddening — scored the OT winner, taking a little pass from Auston Matthews just inside the blue line, using William Nylander as a beard on a twoon-one and snapping the puck over the shoulder of Connor Hellebuyck before taking his celebratio­n into a corner pile-on.

“The whole idea of three-on-three is different,” explained Gardiner of his aggressive foray into the offensive zone. “When you see a chance to take advantage of the offensive side, you do it. Basically you’re trading chances in overtime.’’

Which is probably like nails on a chalkboard to Mike Babcock’s ears because he’s seen what can ensue when Gardiner abandons his position, and has been perplexed by the rearguard’s decision-making. “He does things sometimes that make you wonder. In saying that, he’s also plus-20.’’

Did you realize that? Best plusminus stat on the club.

“Some of those plays are a little different than I’d go about them myself,” Babcock continued. “But he’s been a real good player for us. His timing needs a little bit of tightening, but other than that he’s been excellent for us.’’

A plaudit to remember, next time Gardiner waves his stick ineffectua­lly at an invading forward or demonstrat­es a brain cramp with an outlet pass gone terribly awry.

Throughout his career in Toronto, Gardiner has been described as high risk/high reward. Coaches have to live with that reality, some more disagreeab­ly than others. Gardiner chuckles at the HR/HR branding. “There’s certain times when that’s true,” he conceded. “I have had a few bad games and a few bad shifts. Coaches always say if you make the play, they’re happy. If you don’t, they’re unhappy.’’

But Gardiner has found a happy place inside Babcock’s structure which has helped deter the disasters. “It’s an easy system to learn. Once you do, you just know where guys are all the time.’’

The less he thinks, perhaps, the less likely he is to cock up.

“Depends on the situation, completely. Last night was a great example of that. When Mats (Matthews) has the puck, you know he’s probably going to hit you. So just went for it and worked out.’’ Looked up, saw a wedge of open net “right where I put it, upper-right corner.”

The Air Canada Centre, and the bench, erupted. “It was a game where you could really feel the atmosphere in the building, the crowd so loud. You could feel it on the bench, too, the excitement and the intensity. A fun game.”


Again, in tandem with Nylander, his linemate in the continuing injury absence of Mitch Marner (not available this evening either).

Just about every night the Auston Powers rookie shows off a highlightr­eel manoeuvre. On this occasion, nobody saw the trick coming. Twenty-two seconds left on a Toronto power play early in the third, Matthews hammered a shot off the end boards, rebound caroms out directly to Nylander streaking in at the bottom of the circle, dunking his seventh goal in the last 10 games.

Lots of continuing discussion Wednesday amongst the players about whether Matthews — three assists on the night — had planned it that way, as a bank pass.

Morgan Rielly, skepticall­y: “No. I know he didn’t.”

Nazem Kadri: “He might tell you that, but I think it was just a lucky bounce for us.’’

Babcock: “The way I look at it is, any of those plays that good players make, normally they’re seeing plays before the rest of us do. And he’s one of those guys.’’

Matthews himself was coy. “I was trying to shoot it on the net, but there’s no lane there. I really didn’t have anything else except to just throw it off the boards. It was one of those things, the once in a million times where it happened to work out perfectly.’’ He grins. “I know what Morgan’s been saying . . . ’’

In fact, Matthews revealed it’s a play that he’s practised. Well, just the once. “And it worked, but we never really tried it again. I was pretty lucky. It just popped to Willy with a wide-open net. Most of the time he’s going to capitalize on that.”


On a roll, he’s been, fooling Hellebuyck with a backhand on a partial breakaway for his 25th, which tied the affair at 2-2. But the buzz afterwards was all about the neutral zone KAPOW Kadri laid on Jets D-man Ben Chiarot, taking a few strides before thumping him in the cheek with an elbow, the momentum hurtling Kadri over the boards and practicall­y into Leo Komarov’s lap with 10 seconds left in the middle frame. No penalty, plenty of bile, as Dustin Byfuglien and Matt Martin roughed it up in the aftermath, both drawing five. In the dressing room later, Chiarot issued a clear threat: “It’s not the right time or place to chase him, but there will be a time down the line. Maybe not this year, might not be next year, but there will be a time when the shoe will be on the other foot.” Pshaw, snorted Kadri Wednesday. “Not the first time I’ve heard that. On contact, that’s where I kind of got caught off my feet. He’s a pretty big boy. That’s initially the reason why I popped into our bench. Like I said, it’s a tough game. Obviously nobody enjoys getting hit like that, but it’s going to happen.’’

Let’s be frank. Kadri thrives on drawing ire, getting under the opposition’s skin. “That’s what I like to do and where I’m most effective, trying to irritate them with my physicalit­y.’’ But what, Kadri worry? “Nah. I’ll be here for hopefully a few years.’’

If Chiarot is planning payback because the two teams won’t meet again this season. And Kadri gets it, the loathing he leaves in his wake. “If that was one of my teammates getting hit like that, I probably wouldn’t be too happy. So I expect that kind of reaction.”

The Leafs did lose Connor Carrick early in the game to an upper-body injury. That will allow Alexey Marchenko, claimed off waivers two weeks ago from Detroit, to make his Maple Leaf debut Thursday night.

The 25-year-old, who played for Babcock as a Red Wing, has been nothing more than a roster footnote since arriving in Toronto, wandering around the city unrecogniz­ed.

“I didn’t tell anyone that I play for the Maple Leafs.”

Used to be a lot of that going ’round. Not anymore.

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 ?? GRAIG ABEL/GETTY IMAGES ?? Jake Gardiner triggered the celebratio­n at the Air Canada Centre, scoring at 2:29 of OT past Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck on Tuesday night — after William Nylander had tied it in the third.
GRAIG ABEL/GETTY IMAGES Jake Gardiner triggered the celebratio­n at the Air Canada Centre, scoring at 2:29 of OT past Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck on Tuesday night — after William Nylander had tied it in the third.
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