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Let's Hope The Maple Leafs Never Play in an Empty Arena Ever Again

Watching the Maple Leafs play in front of no fans was not only a cruel reminder of where we are in the world, but it proved challenging for a club that got used to feeling like a return to normal was coming.

DENVER -- The next time the Toronto Maple Leafs are scheduled to play a game at Scotiabank Arena, their hope is that fans will be back in the rink to cheer them on.

In the meantime, a six-game road trip, beginning Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche, should provide the club with a much-needed change of pace, or a return to normal, if you will. 

"We hope it's a temporary thing and something that next time we're at home we have people in the building," Jason Spezza said. "We can definitely use the juice from the crowd, even if it is the visiting team."

The Maple Leafs were understandably rusty in their first couple of games after a 17-day layoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak. They did, however, come out of it with a pair of victories to improve to 20-4-1 over their last 25 games.

Toronto defeated an Ottawa Senators squad missing six regulars due to COVID-19 protocol on 6-0 on Jan. 1 and followed that up with a 4-2 victory over the Connor McDavid-less Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 5.

The games weren't pretty. In fact, it was hard to argue that reporting on the whereabouts of beloved team mascot Carlton the Bear throughout the game was less entertaining than the action on the ice. Although rink rust was a factor in the pace of the games, the scaling back to playing without fans had a clear effect on the energy level of the group and made the games feel unwatchable.

"Going from a full building to an empty building, it's different, it's felt a lot different," Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said on Wednesday. "It feels like we're working towards being the team that we need to be."

The empty building was a result of the Ontario Government moving back to a modified 'Step 2' of their roadmap to reopening in an effort to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. The order went into effect on Jan 5 at 12:01 a.m. and is set to last for a minimum of 21 days. 

If the order expires at the end of 21 days, the Maple Leafs could get fans into the building for the next scheduled home game, Jan. 26 against the Anaheim Ducks.

Although the Leafs played their entire 2020-21 regular season and five of seven playoff games without fans, the adjustment of going from a full building to an empty arena had a drastic ef

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a bit of a shock coming back to the empty building," Spezza said. "I think it was actually probably harder this time because we've had fans now.

"I think when we started the year (last season) with no fans it almost became the norm and you forgot how it was to have fans once you got into the rhythm of things."

The fake crowd noise was back, yet it sounded worse than it did last season. This is also forgivable given the undertaking that is and without much time to practice finding the right mix.

Optimists like myself were hoping that after last spring we had heard the last of it.

The Leafs face a tough challenge beginning with the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday. Winners of eight of their last nine games, the club didn't skip a beat after going through their own COVID shutdown in December. 

"The way that we've played in the two games since coming back from the break, that's not going to cut it on this road trip," Keefe said. "We've got to play better. We've got to play a lot more connected with a lot more urgency; We can't be easing into it. Colorado's a team that comes at you in waves and we've got to be ready for that. And it doesn't get much easier from there."

Things can change in an instant and the pandemic is very much still here. Forwards Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall will miss the game after entering COVID-19 protocol on Friday. 

But there will be fans in the building at Ball Arena on Saturday. And given what those last two Maple Leafs games were like to watch, let's hope the club returns later this month with a full barn.

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