"Aren't you ready to put the Liberals in the penalty box?"

That's the closing pitch line of an Ontario NDP election TV ad.

But, ironically, that's exactly where NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has been through the first part of this election campaign, and where some, even in her own party, think she ought to stay through the NHL playoffs and beyond.

Horwath became something of a darling of the left in the 2011 Ontario campaign, even though she was not the party hierarchy's first choice to become leader after Howard Hampton decided he'd had enough.

She went into her first campaign as leader with low expectations but overperformed day after day — making believers out of many within the NDP who had thought she wasn't quite ready for prime time.

She delivered more seats — though no breakthrough — with a confidence not usually seen in rookie leaders in what usually is a gruelling experience.

1st election the toughest

Over my years of covering provincial politics, leader after leader has told me the first election is the toughest. It's one thing to run in one riding but quite a different thing to essentially run in 107 provincial ridings with all the pressure that goes with that.

But Horwath, in that 2011 campaign, virtually breezed through the experience, winning voters with a broad smile and a good ear — always ready to listen to what people were telling her and leaving them feeling they had been heard.

She seemed relaxed. She actually appeared to be enjoying the experience. She handled the media like a pro, though it should be said that the level of scrutiny was on the light side because, frankly, no one saw her as seriously challenging Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty or PC Leader Tim Hudak for the keys to the premier's office.

Based on all that and the NDP's byelection wins in 2012, 2013 and earlier this year, expectations were high going into this campaign.

After all, it was Horwath herself who decided that while she had supported previous Liberal budgets, the Liberals' best-before date was up and she couldn't wait for a scheduled election in October next year.

But in the lead-up to her rejection of Wynne's second budget — clearly the biggest gamble of Horwath's political career — there was a deliberate decision to shift the NDP away from the left to more of a centre-left party, with more talk of protecting the middle class and small business and less about the underprivileged or so-called "ordinary Ontarians."

It took her weeks to respond to a Liberal announcement that the minimum wage would increase to $11 an hour — an issue that would have been a slam dunk for past NDP leaders who would likely have called it a "good first step" while pushing for more.

The delay upset a lot of the NDP base in general and elements of the labour movement in particular who, for the record, advocated for a $16 an hour minimum wage.

Horwath has been determined to show Liberal voters she is the real alternative. And she's been able to point to success with her repositioning of the party — not mere "moral victories" at the polls, but, rather, electoral success.

The 2012 byelection win in Kitchener-Waterloo is a perfect example. The riding had a long red-Tory history. But a lot of PC voters there worried about Tim Hudak's "hard-right turn" and instead turned to what they apparently saw as the "real liberals" and elected New Democrat Catherine Fife — who once flirted with the idea of running as a Liberal.

'Horwath shift' worries some

Having doubled the size of her caucus, her critics more or less disappeared, though privately some New Democrats still worried about the "Horwath shift."

It's a concern that persists with the decision to reject the Wynne budget, what I've called "the best NDP budget ever tabled by a Liberal government" at Queen's Park.

But, having done it, there was an assumption that like a good hockey coach, Horwath had prepared herself and her team for the electoral playoffs.

The first weeks of the campaign left a lot of New Democrats — even some in the caucus — asking privately, where was that preparation?

The buses rolled late. The leader's itinerary seemed poorly thought out, almost as if it were being ad-libbed from stop to stop. There were issues in finding and nominating candidates. And, many asked, where were the NDP policies — where were the reasons for people to vote NDP?

High-profile and respected NDP insider Gerry Caplan wrote an open letter to Horwath in his regular Globe and Mail column, bluntly saying the campaign has been "a mess."

And then on Friday, a leaked letter to Horwath signed by 34 party insiders called her out for rejecting the Liberal budget and criticized her apparent appeal to conservative voters — and warning the party risked losing their votes.

But even before all that, something else seemed missing: the Andrea Horwath magic from 2011.

Where's the sparkle?

Gone is the sparkle — the confidence that Horwath seemed to have plenty of in the last election.

Watching her release campaign promises has been painful. She had difficulty in articulating the details — if they even existed — and she stumbled on some of her campaign punchlines like the "McGuinty-Wynne government" that she would have nailed in the past.

Maybe it is the kind of "sophomore jinx" that afflicts hockey players who have a great rookie season and then struggle in year 2.

The release last week of the NDP platform — while light on fresh not-borrowed Liberal policy – may have been a turning point for Horwath and, New Democrats hope, for the party, too.

Without a teleprompter — a speaking aid used in the early stages of the campaign, even at a stop in the living room of a private home — Horwath did her very best Oprah impersonation, wireless mic in hand, flawlessly delivering her message,  attacking the Liberals and Conservatives, even mixing in a little humour. And getting laughs.

Tour de force

It was, as they say, a tour de force, clearly her best campaign moment even with all the reporters' questions about the similarities between her "Plan That Makes Sense" and Kathleen Wynne's "Building Opportunity – Securing Our Future" budget.

The Horwath announcement, appropriately, was made in the "Debates Room" of the University of Toronto's Hart House. Her election platform and the party's direction under her leadership is still very much a subject of debate inside and outside the party.

The nature of that debate is evidenced by some NDP candidates telling NDP voters who don't like Horwath or her approach to think past the leader and vote for them.

Or, by the fact that only one Toronto candidate bothered to show up for the platform launch, the others apparently so busy in their ridings they couldn't take a time out for what was an important moment in this campaign.

If Horwath's gamble pays off and the NDP moves into second place as Official Opposition at Queen's Park, a lot of her critics will be silenced.

But if she fails on June 12, there will be few people insisting she stick around for a third provincial election and, as the NDP ad says, many will be prepared to send her to the penalty box — with a game misconduct for un-NDP-like behaviour.