After a couple of days of thought, Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe walked back some of the harsh comments he made on Wednesday following a 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers.
After jumping out in front, Toronto allowed five unanswered goals, which led Keefe to call his team “soft” and “purposeless” during a post-game media availability.
Before he took questions following a practice session in Long Island on Friday, he felt the need to offer words of encouragement as well as an explanation.
“We have competed at a really high level all season and have established ourselves among the best in the [NHL],” Keefe said. “My belief in our team hasn’t changed in any way.
“My remarks were a reflection of how we played in that game and specifically how we performed with the lead. When we are at our best we are a hard team to play against, and we did not play like that.”
Keefe said he addressed the club in the dressing room at Madison Square Garden during the second intermission after the Rangers had scored twice to forge a 3-3 tie.
“My message to the team was pretty similar,” Keefe said. “We have set a standard and my expectation is that we will play to that ability. That standard slipped the other night. I am going to continue to push our team to those high standards.”
Toronto will end its six-game road trip on Saturday night against the New York Islanders. It has gone 2-2-1 over the first five which is forgivable because the opponents included Colorado, Vegas, St. Louis and the Metropolitan Division-leading Rangers. The only poor outfit it faced was Arizona, which got a spectacular performance from its goalie in a 2-1 victory.
The Maple Leafs are 24-10-3 and remain third in the Atlantic Division behind the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Boston Bruins are fourth but have quickly gained ground and trail Toronto now by just three points.
Many pundits expected the Islanders to be among the season’s Stanley Cup contenders but are 13-13-6 and last among the eight teams in the Metropolitan. They have played far fewer games than their division rivals, however, have won seven of their last 10 outings and are in a position to move sharply upward.
Petr Mrazek will get the nod in the Maple Leafs’ net, but not because Jack Campbell has been erratic lately. Campbell has allowed 18 goals in his past four starts but the first-time all-star was scheduled to get this game off for the last week, Keefe said.
The coach said Mrazek, who has been plagued by injuries and has underperformed, needs to see more action, especially now that Toronto will play eight games in February that were postponed due to COVID-19.
“We need to get some more repetitions,” Keefe said. “He is going to be an important part of the team.”
Toronto assigned forward Joey Anderson and defenceman Carl Dahlstrom to the taxi squad on Friday and Keefe left the door open to the latter possibly getting a look on Saturday. Jake Muzzin remains sidelined by a concussion and the club’s young defencemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren got worked over by the Rangers, as did Travis Dermott.
Dahlstrom is 26 and played 64 games with the Blackhawks and Jets in parts of three seasons. He had 10 assists in 27 games with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies before he was called up.
Dahlstrom’s opportunities with Chicago and Winnipeg were limited because he suffered a broken hand and foot in the last three years.
“It is something everybody goes through in their career,” Dahlstrom said. “Before that I had been fortunate and never missed any games. I’ve been itching to get a chance and preparing for the opportunity when it arises.”
After Saturday, the Maple Leafs will not play again until the Anaheim Ducks visit Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 26.
On Friday, Keefe met with a number of players individually and spoke to the team as a group to explain the frustration he expressed after Wednesday’s defeat.
John Tavares, the team captain, said none of the players were upset by the comments.
“We have certain standards and an expectation of where we want to get to and we weren’t at that level,” Tavares said. “We realize the execution and details weren’t there, and we want to continue to push the envelope.”