Sheldon Keefe said his confidence in the Toronto Maple Leafs remains steadfast despite calling them out for a “soft” performance in their most recent game.
“My strong belief in this team hasn’t changed in any way,” the Maple Leafs coach said Friday. “It’s just the fact that our standards slipped the other night playing with the lead in the second and third periods, and we can’t win by playing that way.”
The Maple Leafs lost 6-3 at the New York Rangers on Wednesday, blowing a two-goal lead after the first period and allowing five straight goals.
Keefe criticized his team for the way it played, saying: “Today, I just thought we played soft, and we made poor decisions defensively. We couldn’t sort anything out. It was just far different. Each game has been different, so it’s hard to talk about patterns other than the obvious that we’ve been giving up leads. 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.”
While the criticism was perceived as harsh, the players said the message was received, especially after a recent trend of building up early leads only to squander them.
“I don’t think he’s wrong,” defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “I think as a group we have to do more in the defensive zone. We have to protect our goalie and our net front a bit more.”
In four of the past five games, the Maple Leafs (24-10-3) squandered two-goal leads in each game.
Toronto will look to get back to its defensive foundation when it plays at the New York Islanders on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; CBC, SNO, SNW, SNP, MSG+ 2, ESPN+, NHL Live).
“Regardless of what Sheldon said publicly, I think it was going to be communicated [regardless] to the group that we have to be a lot better,” captain John Tavares said.
The trend of failing to protect leads started with a 5-4 overtime loss at the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 8. Three days later, Toronto survived a late surge by the Vegas Golden Knights and won 4-3 in a shootout.
After a 2-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 12, the Maple Leafs blew a 3-1 lead after one period against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday but rallied in the third period to win 6-5. Forward Ilya Mikheyev broke a 5-5 tie with 3:15 remaining.
Keefe said part of the reason for the struggles can be attributed to being worn down by the opposition.
The Rangers game, he said, was different. In his mind, his team was far too loose in its own end and not nearly hard enough on the puck, issues he said must be addressed if they are to reach their goal of a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“We have a team that is difficult to play against when we’re at our best,” Keefe said. “We’re a team that has played with the best in the League and established ourselves among the best in the League. And that’s been through the foundation of competitiveness and physicality of our structure. We continue to work at the consistency piece.”
Keefe said his public concerns were aired to his team during the second intermission of the Rangers game.
“My message was pretty much there,” he said. “I mean, I don’t say things to the media, especially if it’s to that effect, that I already haven’t mentioned it or spoken in that tone to the team, so they’re not caught up by surprise in that sense.
“My message to the team is what I was saying earlier in that we’ve played at a high level and to a high standard all season and the expectation I’ve had for our team is set based on what we’ve shown the ability to do. We’ve done it. We’ve done it for long stretches over the course of the season and last season, for that matter.”