During his morning media availability on Monday, Sheldon Keefe was asked about giving points up teams below them in the standings so often last year.
“I don’t know exactly where we finished, but there was a lot of teams behind us in the standings,” Keefe responded jokingly.
The Leafs finished fourth in the overall standings, beating out another 28 teams. So, Keefe wasn’t wrong. What the question was likely referring to were the two losses to Montreal, two to Arizona, three to Buffalo and one to San Jose.
So to immediately have a stinker against a team like Arizona, boasting Travis Boyd as the team’s No. 1 center – a player the Leafs willingly placed on waivers two seasons ago – and have made it no secret they’re tanking, that’s bad. Real bad.
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Granted, it’s four games into the season. But with losses to Montreal and Arizona to kick off the season – two clubs deep in the Connor Bedard fight – you know it’s bad.
It all started promising. The Leafs had full control of the first half of the opening period, with the Coyotes recording their first shot 10:31 into the first. The Leafs struggled to get high-danger chances on net, but they at least controlled the puck. But then Nick Ritchie – of course – started his revenge tour and made it 1-0 at the end of the first, only for Christian Fischer to double it up midway through the second.
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Boos poured down from the Scotiabank Arena faithful to close out the second, and continued throughout the third. That has to be a new record for the earliest hisses, right?
The Leafs ultimately tied the game late before Shayne Ghostisbehere’s power-play goal with 1:33 left broke the deadlock. A disallowed Toronto goal with a minute to go took the wind out of Toronto’s sails and Lawson Crouse’s empty-netter sealed the deal.
That was nowhere near the result most expected when the game began on Monday. But when the final buzzer sounded, the Coyotes were the ones with the final laugh. It was Arizona’s first win of the season after allowing six goals per game through two outings, by the way.
If you’re the Leafs, what can you take from a game like that?
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“It’s the National Hockey League,” captain John Tavares said. “Every night, you have to compete, you have to play well, you have to execute or you’re not going to win… To me, it’s just the execution of details and finding a way to have a feel for the game and what’s needed and what’s required to have the result and breakthrough.”
Was Monday a case of having a poor mindset heading in? Were the Leafs overconfident? It’s not like the Coyotes were the much better team. In just about every analytical category, the Leafs were in control. Full marks to Karel Veljmelka for a great game in the Coyotes crease, but it’s not like Erik Kallgren lost the game for the Leafs. Toronto just couldn’t capitalize on their opportunities, and the Coyotes just never gave up.
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You’ll see it sometimes in international hockey: when a team dominates puck possession at 5-on–5 but can’t capitalize, things can start crashing down quickly. For reference, the Leafs had a Corsi-for of 76.47 percent in the first, and while the shots ended up being 4-3, it was 4-1 up until the final minute or two. It was even lopsided in the expected goals-for-percentage, with Toronto having a .67 to .2 edge. Yet, Arizona led where it actually matters – the scoresheet – and never trailed at any point.
“We started to lull ourselves to sleep,” Keefe said. “We had the puck so much, all of a sudden, the pace of the game really dropped. There was no energy, no physicality, it was just us moving the puck around.”
It’s something echoed by some of the team’s top players, too.
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“You can tell your fans frustration throughout the game,” Marner said. “We can’t get frustrated through it. We just have to stay to our process, bear down. And I think we did a really good job of that in the third.”
The third-period effort was much better, with the team generating all their offense. Say what you want about the disallowed goal – none of the Leafs had strong thoughts about overturning it, anyway – but the attack still came a little too late. You can’t play on the attack late against a team that was doing its best to limit high-danger scoring opportunities. For a team with little to cheer for this year, they’ll take victories like that.
Toronto will have Tuesday off before regrouping for Thursday’s game against Dallas. The Leafs had a pair of four-goal games against the Stars last year – both were wins – so you can expect a big effort from the boys in blue. All they can do is forget games like Monday, but they can’t make that a trend.
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Because four lost points to two of the worst teams just four games in is a tough pill to swallow, even if it’s still early.