Sheldon Keefe’s Finest Hour

TORONTO (Mar. 31) — Interesting, isn’t it, that the best performances by the Toronto Maple Leafs under their past two coaches came against the club’s long–time nemesis, the Boston Bruins?

For Mike Babcock, it was Game 5 of the 2019 Atlantic Division semifinal at TD Garden: a 2–1 victory in which the Leafs comported close to flawlessly. It provided Toronto a 3–2 lead in the best–of–seven series with a chance to eliminate the Bruins in Game 6 at Air Canada Centre, televised nationally by CBC here in Canada and the main NBC network in the U.S. Morgan Rielly opened the scoring midway through the first period, but two goals by Brad Marchand, including the clincher at 18:06 of the third period, gave the visitors a 4–2 triumph. The decisive match, two nights later, was no contest. “Soft Goal Freddie” typically melted down in a 5–1 loss, allowing a shot from beside the net by Joakim Nordstrom (32 goals in 444 National Hockey League games) to beat him for the all–important first tally. But, the Game 5 gem was the finest hour in Babcock’s ill–fated Maple Leafs tenure.

For Sheldon Keefe, no performance has radiated quite so brilliantly as the 6–4 conquest of the Bruins, two nights ago, at TD Garden — the final score rather flattering to the home team. This was a road beatdown of a Division rival playing as well as any club in the NHL. The Bruins were 14–2–1 in their previous 17 games and had briefly overtaken Toronto for third place in the Atlantic, dropping the Leafs into a wild card position. But, the visitors, razor–thin between the pipes with Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek injured (Mrazek hobbled to the bench in the first period, having suffered yet another groin pull), ran roughshod over the Bruins, soaring to a 6–1 lead before the home side beat third–stringer Erik Källgren twice late in the final frame. Auston Matthews scored his 49th goal and will become — perhaps tonight at home against Winnipeg — only the fourth Maple Leaf in franchise history to attain the 50–goal plateau, joining Rick Vaive, Gary Leeman and Dave Andreychuk. Keefe has an exceptional 104–48–17 record in 169 regular–season matches with Toronto; none bigger or more impressive than Tuesday night.


MARK GIORDANO, AUSTON MATTHEWS AND MITCH MARNER REJOICE WITH LEAFS FANS AT ICE LEVEL DURING TUESDAY’S ROAD BEATDOWN OF THE BRUINS. CHARLES KRUPA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

My friend, Kevin–Paul Dupont, is among the longest–serving and most widely respected hockey writers in the NHL. He has covered all the recent Leafs–Bruins playoff match–ups, including the Causeway Street Calamity of May 13, 2013, in which Toronto infamously and legendarily coughed up a 4–1 lead in the third period of Game 7, losing in overtime. As part of his Boston Globe game story from Tuesday night (entitled “Unfocused Bruins were dealt a wake-up call by the Maple Leafs, and change may be in the cards”), Kevin had the following observations:

*Final score: Maple Leafs 6, Bruins 4. Don’t be fooled. It was nowhere near as close as the scoreboard might indicate. On a night when the Bruins hoped to measure themselves against another of the Eastern Conference elite, they came up shorter than Bernie Madoff at the pay window. They were down 3–1 after 20 minutes; 6–2 after 40; the Leafs making a laugher out of what was billed as a precursor to the clubs perhaps meeting up in the playoffs.

*The Leafs proved to be too fast, and too proficient on the attack, particularly when it came to taking advantage of Bruins boo boos. The Bruins proved to be ill–prepared and unfocused. The Leafs came with their A game while the Bruins graded out at DNI – Desperately in Need of Improvement.

 
*In two meetings with the Leafs, the Bruins stand 0–2–0, looking like much the lesser team both times.

*The Bruins were not ready. The Maple Leafs were the better team. The same effort a few weeks from now, when everything is framed by best–of–seven, would have the Bruins chasing [a] playoff series.

*The storm was over by 9:42 p.m, the Garden crowd filing quietly, sullenly, out to Causeway. But now change is in the wind for the Bruins, after getting blown out in their own building.

This was an effort the Maple Leaf coaches and players should preserve on videotape — the thorough road dismantling of an experienced playoff foe. With one alarming exception: no one on the visitors answered for the cheap shot accorded Ilya Lyubushkin by Taylor Hall, who is hardly the most–bothersome of the Bruins. Hall lost his cool and right–hooked Lyubushkin on the side of the face from behind after being taken into the boards by the Toronto defenseman. The NHL later fined Hall $5,000 (the veteran forward makes $73,170.73 per game). Notoriously devoid of pugnacity, the Leafs need to self–acquire some team toughness before the Stanley Cup tournament. Which won’t be easy. But, essential. Otherwise, the Bruins — having won every playoff series against the Leafs since 1959 — are likely wondering about the gifted rival with which it may cross paths later this spring.

At no point, thus far, under Keefe have the Leafs made such an audible statement.

THE HUTCHINSON HAUNT: I’ve said it before — Michael Hutchinson has more lives than a cat. Why does it seem inescapable that the veteran goalie will somehow help to determine the fate of the Maple Leafs? The club has attempted everything short of homicide to disassociate with the likeable, but mediocre, NHL stopper. And, yet, here he is again, backing up rookie Erik Källgren against the Jets tonight at Scotiabank Arena. Which could not have occurred without Jack Campbell, Petr Mrazek and Joseph Woll going down with injury (or illness). If something happens to Källgren, good ol’ Hutch will be the No. 1 man until Campbell is fit to return. It’s enough to send shivers down the spine of every Leafs follower. Neither is it likely the club will allow Mrazek to similarly lurk behind the scenes. It is now crystal–clear that Mrazek cannot perform over a lengthy stretch with the chronic groin malady that dates to his years in Detroit. Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas committed $11.4 million to the Czech goalie last off–season, somehow assuming it would heal for all time. It was a colossal waste of cap resources — affirmed, two weeks ago, when any league rival could have snatched Mrazek on waivers. He easily cleared. Now, the Maple Leafs have to cut their losses; buy out the final two seasons of Mrazek’s deal and preserve a bit of cap space, every dime of which will be needed. As for which direction the club will take to determine a No. 1 goalie, much will depend on how Campbell rebounds from his nightmarish second half of the schedule. Prior to losing his command after the All Star break, he was a cinch to triple his paltry $1.6 million salary as an unrestricted free agent. Now, we’re not so sure. This is the most–critical angle pertaining to the Maple Leafs before next season.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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