For a lot of his eight seasons as a Maple Leaf, Jake Gardiner has been a divisive figure.
To the admiring eye, the 28-year-old defenceman is a gifted horse of an elite puck mover who has justifiably logged more minutes than any Toronto skater in the Mike Babcock era. To others, Gardiner will always be the Maple Leaf most likely to succumb to an inopportunely timed brain cramp, his epic minus-five in a Game 7 loss to Boston the most recent example of his ultimate undependability. Around the Leafs dressing room, he’s known as an unrepentant chirper. And on Tuesday, Auston Matthews sounded fed up with a particular vein of Gardiner’s trash talk.
“Jake is always giving the forwards crap for not scoring on two-on-ones,” Matthews was saying after practice.
Gardiner acknowledged as much: “I tell Mats he should score on most of them.”
In the quest to settle this score, a bet was made. At the conclusion of Tuesday’s highly paced 40-minute workout, Matthews invited Gardiner and Gardiner’s defence partner, Nikita Zaitsev, into a two-on-one challenge. In this contest for bragging rights and $100 a head (all proceeds allegedly going to charity), Matthews played the lone defenceman. Gardiner and Zaitsev played forward. Call-up goaltender Eamon McAdam was in net, with starter Frederik Andersen having left practice after 20 minutes to tend to the swelling in his knee that kept him out of Monday’s 4-1 win over the L.A. Kings. (Andersen said he’ll see how he feels Wednesday and Thursday before a decision is made on his availability for Thursday’s game against the Penguins).
The terms of the bet were simple. Matthews gave Gardiner and Zaitsev six tries at a two-on-one. He wagered they would score no more than one goal.
“We were sure, 100%, we were going to score two goals,” Zaitsev said.
While Matthews acknowledged he “wasn’t so confident” in his chances at stopping his foes, he had nothing to worry about. In six tries, Gardiner and Zaitsev scored zero times. At one point, the duo watched a cross-ice pass artfully broken up by a slide from Matthews that recalled Paul Coffey in the 1984 Canada Cup (or a reasonable facsimile with slightly lower stakes).
“They just had no idea what they were doing offensively,” Matthews said, inserting the metaphorical knife and twisting. “Good thing they’re defencemen.”
Source: Dave Feschuck/thetorontostar.com
Photo: © Kevin Sousa