Toronto Star

Net results and the bottom line

Scarboroug­h Leafs spark win with U of T goalie as backup — it shouldn’t have come to that

- Rosie DiManno

The Maple Leafs want to put their imprimatur on the game, on a season that is still only a week young.

But it’s never too early to make a branding impression. Searing the flesh.

Although, both expectedly and unexpected­ly, that’s become a more complicate­d ambition: Auston Matthews, very much the defining element on a team of superior talent and skill, isn’t yet quite fit for game action in his recovery from wrist surgery. Meanwhile, unpredicta­bly and prepostero­usly, a university goalie was suddenly at the end of the bench, on a one-day amateur contract in backup support of Jack Campbell because No. 2 Petr Mrázek lasted all of 40 minutes in his Leaf debut, 48 hours earlier, felled with a groin injury.

Risky business is the game the Leafs were playing on Saturday night, simultaneo­us to hosting the Senators. Like hitting a hard 16 in blackjack if the dealer has a 9, 10 or ace showing. With the spinning wheel of blame arrow — to jumble the gambling metaphor — pointing directly at Kyle Dubas. Because the Leafs have been sailing close to the wind, to the edge of the flat-cap world, on roster adaptabili­ty.

Thus Campbell was between the pipes, hardscrabb­ling come hell or high anxiety through Game 3 on the schedule, because Toronto doesn’t have enough hard cap pocket change to buy a cup of coffee, despite just this past week being valued at $2 billion (U.S.) by Sportico, the sports business website, steepest franchise worth in the NHL. But they’re cap-strapped, couldn’t afford to recall Michael Hutchinson from the Marlies instead of rolling the dice with raw apprentice Alex Bishop. Hutchinson — twice hung out to dry on the waiver wire by the Leafs — can join the parent club on Sunday as an emergency call-up. Nobody’s turning cartwheels.

That’s the thumbnail version of cockamamie events and Toronto’s straitened cap circumstan­ces — devolving from the wildly enriching contracts the Boy Genius GM rewarded to a clutch of marquee luminaries, blah-blah-blah.

Were the steadfast Campbell to have allowed an early fistful of Ottawa goals at Scotiabank Arena on this evening, there would surely have been no relief from the U of T mensch on the bench. Only Campbell suffering a significan­t ailment of his own would have brought Bishop into the game. The stuff of folklore. Like, oh, a Zamboni driver who was lassoed to fill the crease for Carolina against these very Leafs 20 months ago, and beat them.

Clearly, the Leafs aren’t mortificat­ion-proof.

They were, however, Sens-proof, prevailing 3-1 in this return engagement. Again leaning heavily on the calm and collected poise of Campbell, who heard quite an un-Toronto-like chanting: SOUP! SOUP! SOUP! Perhaps this audience has livened up since the long COVID attendance furlough.

“I did hear it and really appreciate­d it,’’ Campbell said post-game. “So thanks guys.”

This was the closest, from among the three games in the ’21-’22 books, that the Leafs have resembled the team they aspire to be. They came out with their hair on fire and pumped a pair of goals behind Anton Forsberg within scarcely eight minutes, from Wayne Simmonds

and Alex Kerfoot.

“I think it took me nine games last year” to pop his first, noted Simmonds, who did it this time to his delight in front of wife and daughter. Even though he was rather aw-shucks about the goal. “I didn’t do anything. Just angled my stick and put it five-hole.”

Simmonds pivoted quickly to the team thing, emphasizin­g the about-face after two lousy starts in a row. “We came up pretty lame in the first 10 minutes,” he admitted, of those back-to-back tilts with Montreal and Ottawa.

This was palpably different, Toronto asserting its will on Ottawa. “We set the tone from the start of the game and we kept going.”

Like Campbell, he’d noticed something different about this crowd in the team’s second home game with no attendance restrictio­ns. “They’re getting pretty rowdy and it’s nice to see.”

For Kerfoot, in particular, it was a nice response to the coach more or less calling him out earlier, which Keefe seems to be more willing to do this year — the public challenge.

“He hasn’t played to the level that he had when the season ended in the playoffs,” Keefe had stated after the morning skate.

Kerfoot agreed, though speaking more generally about his line, with Alex Bunting and William Nylander. “We’ve got to play more in the offensive zone,” he’d said on game-day morning. “Get more stuff going to the net. We haven’t really generated a ton offensivel­y. We’re looking to do that tonight.”

Done. Though, seriously, let’s leave Nylander out of this self-critique. The slick Swede has two goals and three points through three games, including the deft set-up for Kerfoot, best Leaf on the ice Wednesday and Thursday.

Keefe had spoken to Kerfoot in the morning and had this to say post-game: “It was really great for him to score a goal. It will go a long way towards building his confidence.”

Bunting had already demonstrat­ed value as someone who can provoke felonies from the opposition. “He’s hard on the puck, hard around the net, he’s always around the net,” Kerfoot had observed. “Guys are always trying to move him out of the way. He doesn’t like that ... Obviously guys are annoyed when they play against him, so that’s good for the team.”

The Scarboroug­h native annoyed Ottawa even more, doubtless, by scoring his first goal as a Leaf underneath Forsberg’s glove, making it 3-1 at 7:57 of the third period, giving Toronto a comfort cushion after a scoreless second frame where Drake Batherson had come within an offside skate blade of knotting it 2-2, with .05 of second left.

Bunting’s face almost cracked with jubilation as he first banged on the glass and then did a skate-by of the Toronto bench. “Definitely a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life … I’m feeling speechless. It was pretty cool to look up at all those Maple Leaf jerseys in the crowd and they were cheering for me.”

Also on Saturday, Justin Holl was too sick with a cold to dress — fingers crossed it’s nothing more serious — which provided Timothy Liljegren with a first appearance opportunit­y in this embryonic campaign. Liljegren tallied an assist as well.

Let’s state the obvious. We know what the ID markers are on this outfit, same as they’ve been since a cadre of gifted players first arrived five years ago. They’re not fledglings anymore. They’re well-establishe­d stars. They should be hard to play against and worry about the playoff psychic yips later.

“It’s early in the year so let’s not make something too big of a deal,” Jason Spezza almost pleaded following Thursday’s defeat in Ottawa. Adding: “You want to find your identity.”

Kerfoot had echoed: “Those starts are what we’ve been preaching. Start to the game, start to the season. Just imposing our will on the game for a full 60 minutes.”

Most special of all on this evening, from his bench bird’seye view for the varsity kid, Bishop.

“It’s not lost on me. This is a pretty rare opportunit­y and I’m pretty lucky.”

 ?? CLAUS ANDERSEN GETTY IMAGES ?? Michael Bunting’s first goal as a Leaf was popular on the bench, and rounded out the scoring in Saturday night’s win over the Senators. More, S5
CLAUS ANDERSEN GETTY IMAGES Michael Bunting’s first goal as a Leaf was popular on the bench, and rounded out the scoring in Saturday night’s win over the Senators. More, S5
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 ?? EVAN BUHLER THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Alex Bishop, signed to a one-day contract, took warmup and served as the Leafs’ backup goalie Saturday night.
EVAN BUHLER THE CANADIAN PRESS Alex Bishop, signed to a one-day contract, took warmup and served as the Leafs’ backup goalie Saturday night.

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