Sheldon Keefe deserves a ton of credit through the first two playoff games

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Shane Seney
2 days ago
As Sheldon Keefe likes to put it, when you’re coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs, every game feels like a playoff game. Now that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us, Keefe’s an old pro and it’s shown through the first two games of the series.
Game 1 was an ugly loss but it could not be credited to Keefe’s wrongdoing. He had his team prepared, they were maybe a bit too amped up to hit everything that moved and showcase to the Bruins they weren’t going to be pushed over, but regardless, they were ready. The Bruins capitalized on a couple of bad reads and a couple of power plays, and next thing you know Game 1 was in the books with the 5-1 loss.
Game 2 was a completely different story. Auston Matthews was the best player on the ice and carried the Maple Leafs to victory, but what Keefe was doing throughout the game was fascinating to watch. The way he was trying to mix in Mitch Marner with Matthews wherever he could to try and get his superstar winger going was smart coaching. Some shifts Tyler Bertuzzi sat, some Max Domi sat and it was a great way to keep sending Matthews over the boards and also getting Marner involved alongside his favourite centre. And when Marner wasn’t with Matthews, he and John Tavares were busy trying to shut down David Pastrnak. For the most part in Game 2, that was the case.
Keefe was also busy ensuring that Timothy Liljegren wasn’t starting in his own zone throughout most of the game, even if it meant he had to split up his bottom pair, which was smart coaching. Liljegren had a horrible game and the same could be said about Ilya Lyubushkin. Lyubushkin was parked on the bench during key moments of the game and only saw 13:40 in ice time, by far the least of any Leafs’ blueliner.
Keefe relied on his horses late in the game as Edmundson saw a ton of ice time in the third period. The Leafs coach shortened his bench and it worked. It’s also worth pointing out that after the Game 1 loss, Keefe went right back to Ilya Samsonov in net. He gave his starting netminder a chance to bounce back, much like we saw during the regular season and Samsonov returned the favour with his best game as a Maple Leaf. There was a lot of noise to start Joseph Woll in Game 2 and Keefe stuck it out and gave Samsonov his due. Smart coaching.
Another aspect of Keefe is the fact he’s loyal to all four lines and if the fourth line is creating energy and making an impact, he’ll lengthen their leash. That was the case in Game 2, as David Kampf, Connor Dewar and Ryan Reaves brought the pain. They were hitting everything that moved as Reaves ended the game with seven hits, Dewar with three. Reaves ended up playing close to 11 minutes in Game 2, which was more than both Pontus Holmberg and Nick Robertson.

Still Lots of Series Left and Decisions to Come

If William Nylander is available for Game 3, Keefe is going to need to figure out his lineup. Considering Reaves played more than Robertson and Holmberg, and considering the latter is a centre and can help kill penalties, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Robertson come out of the lineup once Nylander returns. The fourth line has been bringing a ton of energy, hasn’t been getting dominated in their own zone, and Keefe’s played them quite a bit, including in the later stages of the third period, so it’s very likely he keeps the trio together for now.
Robertson’s had a couple of looks and hasn’t been noticeably bad through the first couple of games, but as he knows, this Maple Leafs’ lineup is as deep as they’ve been in years and it’s a numbers game. Because he’s so one-dimensional, he’s limited to areas of impact and will be tough to dress once Nylander returns.
There’s also the d-core. Keefe has some major decisions to make when it comes to dressing TJ Brodie or not. Liljegren had a brutal Game 2 and could be an option to come out. Lyubushkin hardly played and could also be someone Keefe decides to sit for a game. Brodie’s had his struggles down the stretch, but if you’re going to use seven guys for six spots, perhaps you don’t want him sitting out for too long. Normally after a win, Keefe would run it back the same, but that may not be the case for Game 3.
While the Maple Leafs and Bruins have a rich history of playoff battles, this is Keefe’s first time being in the thick of it. Bruins forward Brad Marchand commented after Game 2 that this Leafs team is playing for keeps, they are committed and it’s going to be a good challenge.

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