Corey Perry establishing himself as top Maple Leafs’ villain

If you take a 30,000 foot view, Corey Perry doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate to be reviled by the Toronto Maple Leafs faithful.

He’s an agitator, sure, but he’s also a player who spent the first 14 years of his career out of sight and out of mind with the Anaheim Ducks. Plus, he’s a native of Peterborough, Ont., has made notable contributions to Team Canada in international competition, and is a middling offensive threat in the twilight years of his career.

Perry could have easily come and gone from the NHL without making much of an impact in Maple Leafs land, but the fates have conspired towards a different outcome. These playoffs mark the third straight time the winger has gone up against Toronto — and he’s made an outsized mark in those games.

Tuesday’s lopsided Game 1 at Scotiabank Arena was no exception.

Corey Perry has been a thorn in the Maple Leafs’ side in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Photo by Michael Chisholm/NHLI via Getty Images)

Perry managed a goal and two assists — an astounding stat line for a player who produced one point in his last 25 regular-season games. Those strong numbers undersell his impact, too, as he also drew two penalties in just 8:54 at 5-on-5, and led the Tampa Bay Lightning with a xGF% of 76.19.

The timing of his biggest plays was also critical.

He quieted the crowd just over a minute into the game by joining the forecheck, controlling the puck, and setting up a Pierre-Edouard Bellemare goal:

When the Maple Leafs seemed to settle in slightly down 2-0, he drew the penalty that resulted in the Nikitia Kucherov buzzer-beater that put the Lightning in the driver’s seat. His second drawn penalty that led to a goal came less than a minute after Toronto had scored its second consecutive goal to make it 3-2.

The coup de gras was a marker late in the second period best described as a greasy cram — a characterization that Perry would undoubtedly take as a compliment.

The story of an arguably over-the-hill veteran making an outsized contribution in the NHL playoffs is one we’ve seen play out countless times before. What made Perry’s impressive Tuesday night special was the context.

After all, Maple Leafs fans were already booing the winger before the game and they had no idea what was to come:

Perry’s villain origin story in Toronto dates back to May 20, 2021 when he collided with John Tavares, knocking the Maple Leafs captain out of the series. At the time it would be hard to argue he did anything wrong.

The incident appeared to be an accident, but Perry still willingly fought Nick Foligno to satisfy hockey’s unwritten rules or “code.” In its own odd way that was a gracious decision, and the veteran expressed concern when speaking to the media after the game.

“I honestly felt sick to my stomach when I saw it. When I saw him, with the way he is, it’s a scary situation. I’ll reach out to him and talk to him, and hopefully he’s OK.”

So far, we’re not looking at much villainous behaviour. But during the rest of the series Perry was surprisingly effective on offence with four points in six games, including the game winner in Game 6.

The combination of Perry’s surprising production and the nagging idea that him knocking Tavares out may have cost Toronto a series it should’ve won planted the seeds of hatred.

Perry’s resume as an antagonist to the Maple Leafs was padded in the first game of last year’s series with the Lightning. In that contest he racked up 16 penalty minutes and $2,500 in fines for extra-curricular activities with his team down 5-0.

He also scored two more goals in the next six games despite skating just 9:47 per night.

We now have a 15-game sample of Perry playing the Maple Leafs in the playoffs since 2021, and he’s recorded five goals and four assists with just one game with 15-plus minutes on ice. To make an admittedly unfair comparison, Mitch Marner has two goals in those contests while averaging over 23 minutes per start.

Considering Perry has averaged just 0.41 points per game over the last three seasons, his production against the Maple Leafs is notable. Add in his incendiary play style — as well as the unfortunate Tavares incident — and you’ve got yourself a compelling nemesis.

If Game 1 is any indication he isn’t done adding to his resume, either.