I mean, Tyson Barrie said it best.
The guys skating around in Leafs sweaters on Thursday night sure looked different than the guys skating around on Saturday. It was a totally different team, from the tactics, to the body language on the bench, to the post-game scrums.
The Maple Leafs won a game. And they didn’t just win, they DOMINATED. In Sheldon Keefe’s first game behind an NHL bench, Maple Leafs fans got a glimpse of what this team could be under a new coach and, ugh….wow.
1) Obvious Adjustments
Okay, so when you only have a morning skate to impart how you want to play on your team, that’s not a ton of time. I say it is probably 3 weeks before the team gets playing how Keefe wants. However, the adjustments right off the hop were obvious.
The deployment of players was evident, using Barrie and Rielly together in offensive situations and putting Dermott and Barrie out there in others. The Leafs were aggressive at both lines, stepping up to keep plays alive in the OZ with tons of rotation and killing plays at the defensive blue line.
There was a relentless pursuit of the puck when they didn’t have it and a refusal to dump it in when they did. A few times, when the puck would’ve been dumped under most coaches, players skated it out, retained possession, got a change, and re-attacked. It led to the Barrie goal. There is a ton more freedom to this Leafs team, and as a soccer fan, I’m loving the refusal to dump the puck in.
2) Tyson Barrie’d It
I’m sorry, I’m trying to delete– no, I’m not.
As if in his first game under Keefe, when everything had gone awry under Babcock, Barrie scores. If that doesn’t sum up this entire situation, nothing does. It wasn’t even a monkey, Barrie looked like he’d been playing with a gorilla on his back. He was playing like Colorado Tyson Barrie in this game. Jumping up in the play, aggressively offensive, looking to transition quickly, not afraid to make mistakes. We didn’t get to see it, but he’s going to be used on the first power-play unit, which is a LONG time coming.
Going into Colorado, Barrie is probably feeling pretty good about himself and he should. He’s got a coach who’s told him to use his talents and is deploying him to do so. If Sheldon Keefe is the key to unlocking Barrie in Toronto, which he very well might be, this team is about to get a lot more dangerous.
3) Hometown Hero
It cannot be overlooked that the Hometown Hero, Auston Matthews scored in Arizona. Everyone is acutely aware of how much Matthews means to hockey in Arizona, and to see him put on the show was awesome. Right off the hop, Matthews was everywhere. He was electric with the puck and relentless without it. He was noticeably more engaged on as a forechecker and it led to his goal, and an abundance of scoring chances. Matthews could have had a hat trick last night, that’s how many scoring chances he had. It didn’t stop there, he was better in his defensive zone too, supporting the puck and making better decisions.
While he may not have scored more than once, this performance is the type of performance that makes you realize why he’s paid 11 million dollars. He was dominant every shift, made things happen, and his teammates were better because of him.
4) Giraffe on the Loose
Pierre Engvall went from being an extra in practice on Wednesday to playing on the PK and scoring a shorthanded goal. Yea, you read that right. Not only did the Leafs kill ALL the penalties against Arizona, but they also managed to score a shorthanded goal, too! If you would’ve told me that the Leafs would kill three penalties and Pierre Engvall would score his first career goal shorthanded, I would’ve laughed. The Leafs pressure at the blue line caused the Coyotes to try and switch sides. Engvall was standing right where he was supposed to be and picked off the pass.
This was a prime example of a switch in penalty kill philosophy — the Leafs were MUCH more aggressive at the blue line. That aggression caused a turnover, Engvall turns on the jets and potted his first goal. Keefe celebrated like a proud Dad on the bench, and rightly so. He is responsible for Engvall’s development into an NHL player when hope looked lost two years ago.
24 hours earlier, Engvall was looking at the press box, but he took that opportunity Keefe gave him and delivered. He is probably not going to come out of the lineup for a while, meaning the Leafs have a giraffe who is zooming around on the 4th line, causing all sorts of problems for teams.
5) Body Language
Did anyone else notice the Leafs looked genuinely happy on the bench? For the last three weeks, they’ve looked like someone killed puppies in front of them. It was awful. Against Arizona…I can’t remember the last time I saw the Leafs look that positive on the bench. Quite literally, it was night and day. They had all been playing with monkeys on their backs, and the zookeeper came to remove them.
The bench shot when Tyson Barrie scored said it all. Matthews and Johnsson jumped up like children on Christmas, which was over the top for the bench reactions we’ve become accustomed to. On Engvall’s goal, the combination of Matthews, Johnsson, Mikheyev and Spezza all seemed exceedingly giddy again. It’s almost like they were allowed to be kids again, it reminded me of when a minor hockey player scores and the whole team is jumping around. The on-ice play looked looser, the bench was way looser and the post-game scrums were looser.
Mindset is a huge part of success and body language is a very obvious sign of what the mindset is. Good teams have good body language and the Leafs had that, big time.
These are Keefe’s Leafs now. They may not look fully together for a few weeks, as it takes time to make adjustments, but the bench boss has clearly made an impact. It is extremely apparent that the players feel like they have a new lease on their season, and if this team plays like it did on Thursday, look out.
Confidence is so important and getting guys like Barrie, Matthews, Nylander and Marner (when he’s back) to play with confidence and creativity is going to cause a ton of problems. The road trip couldn’t have come at a better time. With monkeys off of backs, guys will bond, be looser and it will benefit them in the long run. This road trip could really be a turning point for the Leafs, and Arizona was the first team to see what the Leafs are capable of.