Seriously, check that out, from the young Swede with the toothiest grin in the locker room. Highlight trifecta in Toronto’s 6-0 whoopin’ of the Flyers on Saturday night.
One: Stepping around Philly D-man Robert Hagg with a faked shot, which got the goalie sliding across, opening up five-hole space, wrister. 4:45.
Two: Off a blocked shot at the Leafs blue line, Johnsson disrupting the play and off like a flash, duplicating Kasperi Kapanen’s speed, straight down the middle whilst shrugging off two pursuing Flyers, five-hole, unassisted. 6:19.
Three: Stole the puck along the boards to the right of the net, blur of a dart toward the crease, backhand tuck of the puck behind Calvin Pickard, five-hole, unassisted. 12:20
Little wonder, as the lids rained down on the ice, that Johnsson stood near the Toronto bench watching the replay on the big screen, gobsmacked expression on his face. Like, WHAT THE.
Lip-readers could fill in the rest of that sentence, which is what Johnsson clearly said — with a sense of wonder — upon the execution of his first NHL hat trick, racked up across just under eight minutes.
The 24-year-old took a while to rouse himself from sophomore sluggishness this season, only recently showing off glints of a year ago. But man, he’ll always have Nov. 24, 2018.
Inside that cluster of opening-frame goals, a Patrick Marleau pounce on a loose puck, trailing a two-on-one rush, poor defensive clearing attempt on Jake Gardiner’s flip to the front and, pop, over the glove. So, Pickard. End of.
“It kind of felt unreal,” said Johnsson afterwards of his three-putt. “First goal, then second goal, and then all of a sudden third goal. I’m like, what’s going on?”
Against Pickard, a Marlies teammate from last year, though that familiarity apparently provided no goal-scoring insight.
“First one, I kind of seen some other guys do that. Or else it’s just instinct.”
Johnsson, who had two goals on the season, has been a whole lot of snake-bit over six weeks. “That’s how hockey is. Sometimes you miss all your chances, this time everything went in.”
Toronto ticked the t’s, dotted the i’s and put up the W.
Which the Maple Leafs hadn’t done since, oh, way back on Monday, was it? Before that pointless and pointless two-game road junket. Hadn’t lost three in a row since last Feb. 27 to March 5. Avoided the triple two-peat Saturday night.
Middling Philadelphia, with James van Riemsdyk — Leaf passim, Flyer even passim-er, restored to the orange fold — proved a juicy opponent, bringing the Leafs’ wobble this week to a halt.
Good thing they got that JVR tribute in early, before the cascade of goals, because it might have been awkward; the former 154-goal scorer for Toronto over six years probably wouldn’t have been in the mutual salute mood.
Thus, a low cloud of anxiety over Toronto was swiftly lifted on a damp night outside.
Hard to take this city’s pulse on the hockey stress-o-meter. Whether this pretty flashy team, studded with talent, has infused Leaf Nation with muscular confidence so that all involved can roll through a couple of defeats and not go heebie-jeebie. Or if a half-century of history has so damaged the Leaf body politic that even now, amidst a rollicking quarter-season of hockey — a mere week ago standing astride the NHL — there is still a pathology of doubt and disbelief.
Misgivings, a dubious twitch, might also describe Mike Babcock’s clearly dim view of Sparks, deploying him only in back-to-back situations, as if the lineup had to be wrenched from the coach’s cold dead hands, despite an excellent acquittal last time out (OT win in Anaheim). Freddie Andersen, who frankly looked a tad gassed in Friday’s loss to Columbus, may have MVP time-stamped all over him, but Babcock is heels-dug-in obdurate about overusing the Dane to rack up points now — league-leading dozen wins for Ginger Man as of Saturday — even if this is exactly the heavy reliance which contributed to that Game 7 disaster Boston last spring.
But who are we to challenge Babcock’s coaching IQ?
Anyway, Sparks got his infrequent kick at the can, occupying the net some 180 feet across from his Calder Cup-winning teammate and co-goalie, Pickard, who’d shut out the Rangers the night previous. No hardship for him, back-to-backs. But of course the Flyers, with four goaltenders in the loop this season, really don’t have a No. 1 goaltender. Some mook name of Anthony Stolarz was given a blindfold and a cigarette, shoved over the bench to replace Pickard. Who, you’ll recall, was lost on the waiver wire along with Curtis McElhinney at the start of October. McElhinney, who beat the Leafs in Raleigh on Wednesday.
Perhaps Babcock will have more trust in Sparks now, on the strength of a second career NHL shutout, turning away all 34 shots.
There were lucky kids waiting in the corridor as Sparks came off the ice, begging for his stick. “Sorry guys, this is the lucky one.”
Of the lopsided goaltending duel with a buddy: “It was really special seeing Picks out there, across the ice from me. We had a great year together last year. There were definitely times where we both doubted if we would find our way back to this league. We always told each other that we would get to this moment where we got to square up. I was just happy that we came out as fast as we did.’’
Johnsson, of course, was on that Calder Cup team with the two goalies as well. “I love Picks,’’ said Sparks. “But I love Johnny too. He’s a special player and he showed it tonight.’’
There was so much Leaf dazzle on display, scarcely leaves room to mention a couple of eye-popping goal set-ups by Mitch Marner, typical dipsy-doodle dandy on salvos by Josh Leivo and John Tavares.
Weird factoid: Second game in a row with no power plays for either Toronto or their opponent. No need, then, to fret over an 0-for-8 record with the man advantage, stretching back to Nov. 13 in L.A.
This game marked exactly one month since Auston Matthews went down with a shoulder injury. There’s a strong likelihood Toronto’s superstar will be game ready for San Jose at home Wednesday, though likely not Toronto’s highly anticipated hosting of Boston on Monday.
It’s been quite remarkable, really, how well the Leafs have adjusted, just carried on, minus their stud, with Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Kapanen picking up so much of the goal-scoring slack. Just as significant, however, is the contribution from Toronto’s bottom six forwards, which had been lacking early on — 15 goals from the third and four lines in Matthews’ absence.
That’s what teams of talent depth and mental sinew do.
Oh, almost forgot, cursory reference to the countdown clock on William Nylander: Check.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno