TORONTO – Whatever you call the opposite of a poker face, that’s what Sheldon Keefe showed Saturday night as he stood at the podium and his general manager stood somewhere else, weighing how many chips to slide into the centre of the table.
The head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs could have brushed off his group’s lacklustre 4-3 blown-lead loss on home ice, on a Saturday night, to the NHL’s worst team.
He could have burned the tape and pointed to the inevitability of the Leafs’ first-round playoff matchup, or Auston Matthews‘ absence, or his players’ sluggish legs coming off their sun-drenched bye-week vacays.
Instead, Keefe pursed his lips, lowered his volume, clipped his sentences, and called a spade a spade.
Keefe had just watched the Washington Generals upset the Globetrotters in Harlem. He had just been firsthand witness to Will trumping Skill — a 60-minute film he’s seen before, and one that gives him nightmares every time it’s replayed.
“Just got outworked, outplayed,” Keefe summed up, accurately.
How do you explain that, considering the position of the two teams?
“I can’t. You guys talked to the players. I’m sure you asked them the same questions,” Keefe replied.
“I can’t do the work for them.”
Two issues, according to Keefe, allowed the mighty, deadline-buying Maple Leafs to hand the Connor Bedard–hunting Columbus Blue Jackets their first comeback victory after trailing 2-0 after the first period: “Effort. Competitiveness.”
During the second intermission, after the Jackets blanked the home side 3-0 in a lopsided middle frame, Keefe asked his players to decide how important a win is to them.
“We just stopped playing the way we did in the beginning,” said William Nylander, the most engaged Leaf of the night. “We gotta keep rolling and not take the foot off the gas.”
Sure, two points squandered in mid-February don’t mean much to a high-octane regular-season threat whose post-season berth is only a matter of math.
But a laissez-faire, 40-shots-allowed dud in front of a young goaltending prospect making his season debut?
Giving free access to the crease and getting outshot 20-9 in the slot by the weakest offence in the East?
Getting outhit in your own barn 40-21 even though you weren’t the team with the puck most of the time?
Letting the more disciplined Jackets run around your zone and fire more pucks off the cycle (14-8) than your elite playmakers?
It’s a tough look, particularly when GM Kyle Dubas came out Thursday and challenged his skaters to dominate during this soft schedule against a slew of non-playoff clubs.
“You’re always looking for signs of growth, and I think this is a stretch for us to do that. These are important games for us. These are two points every night, whether we’re playing Boston and Tampa or playing teams that are currently outside the playoff picture. So, these are important for us in our own growth,” Dubas said.
“The minute that we start to lose our focus is the minute that we’re going to really start to give it back. That’s not what we want to do. Our job is to continue to chip away at it (and) put together a strong month here.”
That message has been clearly relayed to the dressing room.
“It’s been an area of focus, obviously,” Morgan Rielly said. “We’ve talked about it in the past, going back a while now. Truthfully, I thought we were very good in the first, and then there’s just a small lapse that ends up costing you.”
Unlike Keefe and Dubas, the players, remember, do have security.
The looks on their faces following a flat effort in February aren’t nearly as urgent or upset.
They have time on their hands. Maybe they’ll use it.
Said captain John Tavares: “All-around disappointing.”
Yep. All you need to do is glance at Keefe’s face to see that.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Nylander muffed his shot on a great rush look and took exception to what he deemed a late hit from Nick Blankenburg into the end-boards.
Nylander’s retaliatory whack originally earned him a major penalty, which was rightly reduced to a minor upon official review.
“A little pissed off,” said Nylander, admitting he was doubly frustrated by the shot and the check. “I didn’t think he needed to hit me there.”
A rare and welcome display of edginess in this, the most engaged season of Nylander’s career.
• Trade bait centre and first star of the game Boone Jenner submitted quite the stat line: one goal, one primary assist, plus-two rating, 23:49 ice time, nine shots, five hits, two blocks, 14-10 in the faceoff dot.
• Pierre Engvall — on pace to set a new career high in goals — banged the glass Friday in Columbus after he pounded the puck into the net.
“I think I did that the goal before, too,” Engvall says. “It’s a new thing for me — to hit the glass. A new celly for me.”
• Matthews didn’t jet out of town during the bye week but rather spent most of his downtime in Toronto, rehabbing his sprained knee. He’s pushing himself to get back into action.
“Kinda fluky,” he says of the injury.
Matthews tweaked the knee warming up Jan. 25 to play the Rangers and it worsened as the game went on. The Leafs have gone 2-3 during his most recent absence. Matthews hasn’t been ruled out Wednesday versus Chicago.
• Fantastic scene in Sweden Saturday at the star-studded charity game held in honour of Borje Salming.
Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin, Tiger Williams, Darryl Sittler, and Mikael Renberg were among those in attendance to watch Salming’s banner raised to the rafters.
“I saw it on Instagram,” Engvall says. “It’s so sad what happened. But you feel so glad for Borje that everyone is showing him so much support.”