For the biggest tilt of the Toronto Maple Leafs season, Kasperi Kapanen arrived wide awake and started right on time.
The speediest of Maple Leafs had come up just one assist shy of registering the franchise’s first Gordie Howe hat trick in five years, which is like coming up a single short of hitting for the cycle.
“I guess I was kind of looking for one,” Kapanen admitted, a grin dancing at the corners of his lips.
“I don’t think anybody’s really expecting me to score too many goals or get too many points, but just forecheck and be a presence out there. And that’s what I was trying to do right off the hop — to get in their face and let them know that it’s going to be a long night and that we’re here to play.”
“That’s what he’s capable of doing. That’s the impact that he has on our team,” praised coach Sheldon Keefe, who had benched Kapanen due to an internal accountability issue at the top of the month. “Really great to see that. It gives us consistency all throughout our lineup.”
Seemingly entrenched as a third-line right wing as long as he skates for Toronto, for all his flash and finish, Kapanen may never elevate to star status on this top-heavy roster.
Heck, he played his most inspired minutes of this wildly inconsistent campaign, the Engvall-Kerfoot-Kapanen tilted the ice more severely than any other, the Leafs shut out the Pittsburgh Penguins — his former employer — 4-zip, and he still wasn’t awarded one of the game’s three stars.
Yet when Patric Hornqvist nailed teenaged Rasmus Sandin behind the play, a scrappy Kappy leapt smack in the big Swede’s face and ended up charging into just his second NHL fight, instead, with a willing Jared McCann — sending a jolt through the lineup.
“It shows emotion. That’s what we were looking for,” Alexander Kerfoot said. “We wanted a little more bite to our group, and he’s a fiery guy at times and he had a great game tonight. I thought he was all over the forecheck, he was physical all night, and when you see a guy like him drop the gloves, everyone on the bench gets a boost.
“We just got to kind of find that energy, that bite, that jam that we had tonight and be able to bring that on a consistent basis.”
Added Kyle Clifford: “Kappy’s a fiery guy, and he’s got a competitive spirit in him. You don’t expect him to do that on a nightly basis, but that’s what makes good teams great.”
Kapanen’s tumultuous second full-fledged big-league campaign can be viewed as a microcosm of the Leafs’ as a whole.
There have been frustrating lapses of lethargy, a fumbling to find chemistry, infuriating shifts button-hooking around the perimeter, plus some brutal penalties and giveaways.
There have also been moments of sheer brilliance, breathtaking bursts of speed, and some focused defensive effort.
Pay for a Leafs ticket this winter, and there’s a chance you’ll see the hockey’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters or the Washington Generals. Or both.
“That line has really been struggling for us to find an identity and to find some consistency,” Keefe explained.