Kasperi Kapanen is no stranger to scoring critical goals at critical times – over the years he’s done it everywhere, from the World Juniors to the NHL playoffs. In this postseason, the Maple Leafs’ winger would settle for anything that finally gets him on the scoresheet.
Three games in to Toronto’s first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Boston Bruins, Kapanen is the only Leafs forward to have played in every contest without registering a single point.
It’s a baffling statistic considering the rookie has had no trouble generating chances in the form of multiple breakaways; he just can’t engineer any results.
“I’m just unlucky right now,” Kapanen said after Leafs’ practice on Wednesday. “I hope [it changes]. I’ve had a lot of chances; hit a lot of posts. Hopefully it just starts going in soon. I hit the post once [on a short-handed breakaway] and the other time the puck was rolling a bit so I didn’t get to do what I wanted. I’m doing something right, obviously.”
With a critical Game 4 looming on Thursday, the stars could be aligning once again for Kapanen to earn his moment. The Leafs trail Boston 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, and evening things up at home before shifting back to Boston is the top priority.
Most of the talk after Game 3 has swirled around the Leafs’ top-six forwards, but it’s Toronto’s depth of forward talent that has the potential to outmatch Boston’s. That’s what happened last April, when Kapanen and the fourth line combined to score the double-overtime game-winner against Washington to knot their first-round series 1-1.
It was only one game – and the Leafs ultimately dropped that series to the Capitals – but the 21-year-old well remembers his most famous professional goal and the impact it had. Playing on a fourth line now that includes Dominic Moore and Andreas Johnsson, Kapanen would like nothing more than to recreate a goal that special when the Leafs need it most.
And if anyone in Toronto’s lineup is due, it’s him.
“Obviously I feel more comfortable in my game now, but the excitement is the same [as last spring]. I love playoffs,” he said. “I’ve been trying to use my speed to get off the defenders a little and try to surprise them, maybe get them standing still, and if there is a turnover, I try to pounce on that pretty quick.”
The fourth line’s assignment isn’t tailored towards generating offence, which has made Kapanen’s ability to maximize his ice time so noticeable. He’s averaging 10:07 per game at even strength while tied for the most defensive-zone faceoffs among Leaf forwards (16, compared to four in the offensive zone), making opportunities in the Bruins’ end scarce and contributing to Kapanen’s team-worst minus-4 rating.
With Moore returning to centre the fourth line in Game 3, Kapanen had his best outing of the series and looked dangerous whenever that group had control of the puck. At least from Johnsson’s perspective, it’s only a matter of time now before Kapanen cracks the scoresheet.
“If you put the puck in the right spot for him, he’s flying and he’s getting those breakaways,” said Johnsson. “We’re pretty small guys so you can’t really stay still and battle. As long as we have the speed, we can beat them. [Moore] knows we want to go fast and get up on offence, so he’s taking a bigger step in the defensive zone.”
“I think he’s been real good,” added Mike Babcock of Kapanen. “He’s doing a lot with the ice time he’s given. He’s got to shoot the puck, skate like crazy, be physical on the forecheck…when Kappy is physical and he’s competing and he’s flying, I think he’s real effective.”
When the puck isn’t going in for him, Kapanen said he doesn’t change too much, nor does he make more calls to his ex-NHLer dad Sami in search of tips or tricks of the trade. The key to finding the back of the net will lie for Kapanen, as it often does, in doing the right work in front of it.
“You have to take care of the puck in your own zone, but once we get the puck, we’re trying to make plays,” he said. “I’m trying to be physical and be on their [forwards] and get pucks back, so that’s my job and I just have to be better at that in Game 4.”
Only time will tell if the Leafs need any late-game heroics to get them through the tilt. But in its current predicament, Toronto is preparing for the most high-paced, bone-rattling outing of the playoffs thus far come Thursday, where every scoring chance (buried or not) could be the difference.
“We’re playing Game 4 tomorrow, and we need a win,” Babcock said. “I think we’re in a real good spot, I think this will be the most competitive game in this series. Obviously they’re going to be ready to play. Any time you don’t win, you want to bounce back hard. We expect their best game for sure.”