DENVER — The next time the Toronto Maple Leafs plan to play a game at Scotiabank Arena, they want fans to come back to the rink to cheer them on.
Meanwhile, a six-game road trip against the Colorado Avalanche starting Saturday should provide the club with a much-needed change of pace, or a return to normalcy, if you will.
“We’re hoping it’s temporary and the next time we’re at home, there will be people in the building,” said Jason Spezza. “We can definitely use the juice from the crowd, even the visiting team.”
The Maple Leafs are understandably rusting their first few games after a 17-day hiatus due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, they did have two wins in their last 25 games to improve the score to 20-4-1.
Toronto beat the Ottawa Senators 6-0 on Jan. 1, who missed six regulars due to COVID-19 protocols, followed by a 4-2 win over Edmund without Conor McDavid on Jan. 5 The Oilers.
The game is not pretty. In fact, it’s hard to argue that reporting on the whereabouts of beloved team mascot Bear Carlton throughout the game was more fun than the action on the ice. While rusting on the rink was a factor in the pace of the game, the curtailment of games without fans had a noticeable impact on the team’s energy levels, making games feel unwatchable.
“It’s different, it feels very different, from a full building to an empty building,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said Wednesday. “It feels like we’re trying to be the team we need to be.”
The empty building is the result of the Ontario government’s return to a revised “step 2” of its reopening roadmap to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. The order went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on January 5 and will last for at least 21 days.
If the order expires at the end of 21 days, the Maple Leafs can let fans into the building for the next scheduled home game, a Jan. 26 game against the Anaheim Ducks.
While the Maple Leafs played the entire 2020-21 regular season and five of the seven playoff games without fans, the adjustments from full buildings to empty arenas have had a huge impact
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t shocking to be back in an empty building,” Spezha said. “I think it might actually be harder this time around because we have fans now.
“I think when we started (last season) without fans it almost became the norm and once you get into the rhythm you forget what it’s like to have fans.”
The false crowd noise is back, but it sounds worse than last season. This is also forgivable since the task is and there is not much time to practice finding the right combination.
Optimists like me hope we hear the last word after last spring.
Starting with Saturday’s Colorado Avalanche, the Leafs faced a serious challenge. Having won eight of their last nine games, the club hasn’t skipped a beat after going through its own COVID shutdown in December.
“The way we’ve played in two games since coming back from the break, it’s not going to cut it on this road trip,” Keefe said. “We’ve got to play better. We’ve got to play more with more urgency; we can’t relax. Colorado is a team that’s coming at you, and we’ve got to be ready. It hasn’t changed from there. Much easier.”
Things can change in an instant, while the pandemic remains. Forwards Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall will miss the game after entering COVID-19 protocols on Friday.
But there will be fans in the arena building on Saturday. Given the last two Maple Leafs games, we expect the club to return with a full barn later this month.