TORONTO â€” Leo Komarov missed on his first attempt to hammer Alex Ovechkin into the Air Canada Centre boards. He didn’t stop though. He shoved the Russian star three times, hooked him, held his stick, and then hit him once more.
The pesky Maple Leafs winger is doing everything he can to frustrate the captain of the Washington Capitals, who’s been quiet so far in the first-round playoff series Toronto now leads 2-1.
“I chuckle a lot with a lot of stuff Leo does,” says long-time teammate Tyler Bozak, who scored the Game 3 overtime winner for the Leafs on Monday night. “He knows the guys whose skin he’s got to get under.
“He does a really good job of doing that.”
Komarov is effectively playing the role of super pest against Ovechkin and the Capitals’ top line, which also includes the underrated Nicklas Backstrom and feisty T.J. Oshie. Although they popped for a pair of quick goals early in Game 3 – Komarov wasn’t on the ice for one â€” the trio has largely been contained through three games of a series that’s unexpectedly gone Toronto’s way.
Ovechkin has only one even-strength point so far and the difference is stark when he’s on the ice at even-strength against Komarov:
With Komarov in 28 minutes: 48.5 per cent
Without Komarov in 20 minutes: 57.8 per cent
Caps head coach Barry Trotz noticed the trend early in Game 1 and tried to keep his top guys away from Komarov, Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown while he controlled the matchups in Washington. He might’ve even gone too far in Game 3 with Ovechkin playing only 12 minutes 40 seconds at even-strength â€” below the 14:36 he averaged in the regular season.
“I think Leo’s a real good player and I think guys like him are even more valuable on good teams than they are on bad teams. They play an important role,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said.
That value is evident in a playoff series.
Komarov might be annoying to play against the odd time in the regular season, but every other night and it gets a little old. There’s just no let-up in his tactics, whether it’s driving an opponent hard into the boards or goading them into taking a penalty.
Ahead of one neutral-zone faceoff in Game 2, Komarov and Justin Williams had to be separated as they jockeyed for position. That didn’t stop Komarov, who had his helmet knocked off by Williams seconds earlier. He wedged his left leg around the right one of Williams and drove him to the ice.
The Finn managed to walk the line of not taking penalties himself. He was whistled for only 12 minors during the regular season and only one so far in the playoffs â€” a holding call that also saw Ovechkin hauled off for embellishment.
“I think he’s just someone who’s hard to play against and you probably want to give him a shot or two, but (this) being playoff time you don’t necessarily want to take a penalty,” veteran Matt Hunwick said.
Teammates can’t help but laugh when they see the stuff Komarov pulls. They know the routine. Komarov will push and prod and prod some more until he’s finally got under his target’s skin. He’ll skate away when they respond, the grinning Cheshire Cat who’s done nothing wrong.
“He’d definitely frustrate me if I was on the other team,” said Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner, a teammate since Komarov entered the NHL in 2013.
Added Babcock: “You know he’s never going to go away and you never know what language he’s talking to you in either so that’s confusing.”
Komarov, who speaks English, Finnish, Swedish and Russian (as well a little Spanish), has been a member of the Leafs organization for more than a decade. He was drafted 180th overall in 2006 when John Ferguson Jr. was still Toronto’s general manager.
He didn’t arrive in the NHL until age 25 and then quickly established himself as a player who could rile up opponents and hold his own defensively.
A four-year, US$11.8 million deal signed by then-GM Dave Nonis in the summer of 2014 â€” which has one year remaining â€” has looked increasingly wise in hindsight.
Komarov and Ovechkin have had their battles before.
Ovechkin gave Komarov a concussion in Nov. 2014 when he clipped him with a hit to the head. Komarov was never mad about it, though, insisting he’d left himself vulnerable.
He and Ovechkin appear to have even developed a respectful relationship over the years. The two were spotted sharing a conversation in the bowels of the ACC after a late regular-season meeting earlier this month.
Asked if he was enjoying his tete-a-tete with his long-time foe though, Komarov paused and then said: “Not at all.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press