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Sheldon Keefe calls out Leafs core players after “immature” 6-3 loss to New Jersey

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
22 days ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs have done a lot of good in 2023-24, and they’ve done a lot of bad alike. Tuesday night’s 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils at home exemplifies the latter.
After opening the scoring less than two minutes into the game, they surrendered the next two goals and went into the second period trailing 2-1 despite outshooting the Devils 25-10 through the first 20 minutes. They were seemingly rewarded for their first-period efforts early in the second, regaining the lead via a pair of goals from William Nylander and Auston Matthews. That reward lasted all of 44 seconds before the Devils responded and tied the game at 3. From there, sloppy play and timely giveaways essentially gave New Jersey the game on a platter.
This type of performance is nothing new to the Leafs or their fans. The terms “learning lessons” and “stop taking our foot off the gas pedal” have been thrown around a number of times in the past few years, and the notion of finding “killer instinct” has been a consistent talking point dating back to the 2020-21 season. It gets tiring to hear if you’re a fan, and I’d imagine it’s even more tiring to hear as a head coach. Sheldon Keefe called out his team after an “immature” performance against the Devils. 
“I thought instead of having a strong period and building on it and continuing to do the things we do well, we overdid it,” Keefe said. “It was just really immature. Really immature all the way through our game, really immature from our most experienced players and our leaders. And then our players who are immature, our inexperienced guys, we made lots of mistakes here today. First period, McMann, gives up a 2-on-1, Holmberg and Kniesy get caught on the ice, third and fourth lines give up goals in the second period. So, top and bottom, just not good enough when you’re playing against a team that’s among the most dangerous in the league.”
The Devils are a team known for their struggles in and around their own net this year. That’s the type of team the Leafs should be thriving against. Instead, they let it get away from them and sacrificed a crucial two points with the Tampa Bay Lightning only four points behind them for third in the Atlantic Division. 
Keefe was visibly frustrated with his entire team but looked to his core players in Matthews, Nylander, and John Tavares to take responsibility. 
“They gotta be the example. John Tavares has been the example for us, he’s been outstanding for us for a long time, he himself got carried away tonight – that’s our captain, so if that’s gonna happen, well, the rest of our bench is just making it up as we go. You do that, you open the door for the opposition to have a good night, and they did that. I thought the last goal at the end of the third period there, that’s indicative of our performance here tonight.”
Speaking of that whole “killer instinct” quip, it reappeared tonight, coming from Matthews. 
Matthews also touched on the concern that comes with having these types of games so late in the season and took responsibility for the loss.
Nylander also echoed Matthews’ statements, saying that their effort wasn’t acceptable for what they’re able to do at their best.
Another quote from Nylander that was telling was when he was asked about the team’s struggles on the power play and how much that might be impacted by the absence of players like Mitch Marner.
“Of course, I mean we have unbelievable players not playing, but I still think that we should be capable with the players that we have to have a good power play. I just think we need to get back to the drawing board and I think simplify our game.”
It’s no secret that injuries are playing a part in the Leafs’ struggles right now – they’re down an elite, all-situations player in Marner, a versatile middle-six forward in Calle Jarnkrok who plays on the power play and penalty kill, and they were down both Morgan Rielly and Joel Edmundson on Tuesday night. Still, it’s not an excuse given the magnitude of players who are still healthy. For as much as Marner would help the power play and the penalty kill right now, both units have dried up with him on it in the past, so there can’t be any excuses made for poor play of late.
The Leafs’ gap with the Tampa Bay Lightning for third in the Atlantic Division is at only four points, and while some might argue that a chance to get out of playing the Boston Bruins or the Florida Panthers in the first round can be a positive for the team, it’s not the mentality the team should be adopting right now or at any point. You have to go through the toughest teams in the conference to get to the Cup final one way or another, and slipping in the standings to make your path easier from the get-go is not only a less-than-ideal circumstance but also implies that their first-round matchup would be easy either way.
The Leafs will host the Washington Capitals on Thursday night, which will be another test. The Capitals are fighting for a wildcard spot and will be playing for their lives, especially after allowing seven goals against Toronto last week, so they can’t make the same mistake of trying to do too much and letting games slip past them. Not just on Thursday, but for the rest of the season and into the playoffs.

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