NEW YORK—Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe may be at a loss to explain why his team has suddenly taken to blowing leads, but he certainly has a grip on what he saw Wednesday night when his charges took a 3-1 lead and turned it into a 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers.
“We obviously did have a very good start to the game,” said Keefe. “But we’ve had a lot of really good starts, haven’t we? Obviously, it’s been the finishes that haven’t gone well.
“Maybe the fast start ends up working against us because I just thought we just played as though it was going to be really easy, the rest of the way and paid for it.”
Up and down the lineup, Keefe said, no Leaf showed up.
“I don’t think we had anybody that played well tonight,” said Keefe. “Coaches didn’t coach well. I didn’t think we had nearly enough urgency or purpose.”
The Maple Leafs have taken to playing a highly — shall we say, exciting — brand of hockey. One that is unpredictable. One with lots of goals, lots of leads, lots of blown leads.
It’s the kind of hockey that gets your attention. Don’t look away. But it might not be the kind of hockey that is doing them any favours.
Indeed, the Leafs asserted their offensive ability early with goals by Ilya Mikheyev, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting. The Rangers — led by their physical fourth line — established their superior strength and their offensive talents then surpassed Toronto’s. Ryan Reaves scored twice for New York and was a physical force. Adam Fox also had two — his second into an empty net — while Dylan Strome and Chris Kreider also scored for the Rangers.
The result was another blown lead by the Maple Leafs. They’ve blown leads in four of their past five games.
The Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in Colorado to start the trip, losing 5-4 in overtime. They blew a 3-1 lead in Vegas, winning 4-3 in a shootout. In St. Louis, they had leads of 3-1 and 4-3, then trailed 5-4, but rallied late in the third for a 6-5 win.
“I thought we played soft and we made poor decisions defensively,” said Keefe. “We couldn’t sort anything out. Each game has been different. It’s hard to talk about patterns other than the obvious in that we’ve been giving up leads, but I just thought we got exposed today for being a team that was just soft. Soft and purposeless and just kind of playing the game and hoping it was going to work out.”
Keefe added: “It’s the fourth game in a row that Jack Campbell allowed at least three goals against.
“He’s not playing at the same level,” Keefe said of his goalie. “But we didn’t play well enough as a team (in front of him). We can’t play soft and purposeless hockey and win. We can’t defend the way we defended and give them clean looks at the net.
“This one should bother us greatly because how we played wasn’t good enough.”
Auston Matthews road scoring streak ended at 10 games, a Leaf record, and one road game shy of the league record of the record set by Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings in 1988-89 and matched by Pavel Bure of the Vancouver Canucks in 1993-94.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. In fact, it looked for a bit that Matthews had scored, with 3:52 to go and the Leafs down by two, but the goal was called back on video review because it was ruled he kicked the puck into the net.
Still Matthews picked up an assist, and has 18 goals and nine assists in his past 17 games.
“The great thing, first off, is it’s not like he’s out there playing selfishly, looking just strictly for goals. He’s doing it the right way,” said Marner. “A couple of those goals have been kind of dirty, around the net. Just hard-working goals. And a couple of them have just been this pure talent of just beating the goalie cleanly.”
Matthews scored 12 goals during that 10-game run. He has scored 25 goals this season, third in the NHL, after leading the league with 41 in 52 games last season to earn his first Rocket Richard Trophy.
“He’s a great player that we all know has the ability to core every night,” said Keefe. “Really he has the ability to score every shift if the right opportunity comes around and you never know when that’s going to be. But when the other team makes a mistake or when he gets a puck in a good spot, he has the ability to capitalize on it.”
- Marner scored on the power play, remarkably the first extra-man goal he has scored this season. In fact, it’s his first in nearly a year, dating to Feb. 1, 2020.
- William Nylander picked up an assist on Marner’s goal, the 300th point of his NHL career. That, by the way, puts him in 39th in all-time Leaf scoring, 18 points behind Paul Henderson.
Let’s take a moment to speak about Mikheyev, who got his sixth goal in eight games, playing mostly third-line minutes. He had seven goals in 54 games last year and eight goals in 39 games in 2019-20. His agent, Dan Milstein, tweeted “Show me the money” after the first-period goal. Mikheyev is heading to unrestricted free agency, earning a cap hit of $1.65 million (U.S.) this year. As things stand, the Leafs don’t have a lot of wiggle room for free agents asking for big raises. So it may be best to enjoy Mikheyev’s ride while he’s here.
Jake Muzzin missed his second game of the season, and first on this road trip due to a concussion. That means more responsibilities for youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, now the second pair, with Travis Dermott and Alex Biega the third pair.
“It’s a terrific opportunity,” Keefe said. “Liljegren has had a pretty good chunk of time playing up in the top four and killing penalties. So when you’re killing penalties, you’re going against the other team’s best players doing that and then naturally, just being paired with Muzzin, you’re going to get some tough matchups. Now Sandin will get an opportunity. I think for a young player, that’s what you want.”
Forward Nick Ritchie returned to the ice with the Maple Leafs, having been released from COVID protocol. But defenceman Justin Holl and winger Ondrej Kaše remained in protocol, in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Ritchie remained part of the Leafs “taxi squad” — officially a minor leaguer despite his $2.5-million contract — but has been allowed to work out with the team.
There is no timeline for his return to a game.
“We’ve got to get him back up and running and see how he’s doing,” said Keefe. “Saw him in the facility this morning for the first time, getting back on the ice and getting going, and he had been feeling pretty good. So it could be a short amount of time for him to get back up and running, I would think.
“But as we’ve talked about every player comes back off of these breaks and deals with COVID recovery differently. So we’ll just take it a day at a time.”
Correction — Jan. 20, 2022: This file was updated to remove a statement that said the New York Rangers are the only team this year to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs twice. The Pittsburgh Penguins also have.
Kevin McGran is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran