When Sheldon Keefe reaches into his NHL coach’s memory bank, the remembrances of things past aren’t very sweet.
Of course, No. 39 in the Toronto bench boss annals, from the legendary to the hacks, doesn’t share the entire spectrum of Maple Leafs discontent, mortification even on occasion. No stench clings to him of the back-to-back botches against Boston when the Bruins were in the team’s elimination crosshairs. He doesn’t wear those shrouds.
But last spring and the pandemic bubble post-season the summer before are epitaphs on his resume, bordered in black: Here lie the Leafs, predeceased by a half-century-plus of futility and folly.
How much blame does a coach carry for a team’s failure? The performance metrics are difficult to decipher. We know that Mike Babcock stirred the stress and then absolved himself of fault. Keefe doesn’t seem the type to inject shots of dread into his players, although that Leaf documentary last year, “All or Nothing,” provided an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes peek, revealing an unexpectedly profane, if mostly harmless , dimension.
Coaches don’t score goals and they can’t make saves. They might carry the can if a team comes out of the gate woefully unprepared, as was the case in several games against Montreal a year ago, and Keefe did say that it was on him, the coaching staff, although not explaining specifically the whereof. It was probably just a veneer mea culpa. It was inexplicable, really, how the Leafs managed to maneuver themselves into such a claustrophobic corner in a series where they led three games to one, safe as houses.
Contending with Columbus in the best-of-five 2020 qualifying round, amidst COVID chaos and no fans in the stands, had much of the freakish about it. Scorers couldn’t score, Freddie Andersen was beaten by some fluky goals and perhaps Keefe was outcoached by the cunning John Tortorella.
The teamwide mantra is that these Leafs aren’t those Leafs and what they are — what they’ve come to be over a historically shimmery regular season — is what should stand them in good stead for a do-or-die Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday against the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
Before the Leafs left Tampa on Thursday, during a zoom call with reporters, Keefe enumerated the factors that could — should — propelled Toronto out of the opening playoff round for the first time since 2004.
“All the things that we’ve done all season long, to put ourselves in a position to compete in such a difficult division to secure home ice in a series such as this, to stand in and go toe-to-toe with back- to-back champions — and the fact that we feel our top players are thriving, they’re feeling good, they’re confident — the reaction that we’ve had from our fans and the boost we’ve had from our fans through this serials…
“All those things combined, the perseverance, the grit that we’ve shown to come back in these last two games, I just feel like this team has a lot of fight in it and a lot of confidence and belief in what we’re doing. It doesn’t make the game or the challenge with the opponent any easier. But we certainly aren’t uncomfortable going into this game. We’re ready for it.”
Every time a canvasser tries to raise the oof of 2020 and 2021, Keefe accentuates the dissimilarities. “Going into Game 7 last year, maybe even the Columbus series the prior year, you are on a bit of a downer because of your performance and how you failed to get it done. Although we lost in overtime (Thursday), which is similar in a sense to Montreal, the manner in which we played, the caliber of our opponent, how hard they pushed us, how we have handled that, how we put ourselves in a position to win, and how our individual players are feeling, with the confidence that they have, all of those combine to fill our group with excitement.”
Keefe has not been outcoached this time ’round, despite some whingeing from the press gallery about the personnel he deployed to start Game 4 in Tampa — Justin Holl, the whipping boy — where Toronto got sunk early and often. Up against the man who he would have coached had the NHL participated in the Beijing Olympics, Keefe has done a superior job of reading the game, matching the lines and reacting to the thrum.
While he may not be as glib with the media as Jon Cooper and has pulled his psyche-out punches, Keefe has forensically autopsied the games, and tactically made changes, realizing when to ride the impetus of a flying William Nylander — plugged into multiple line combinations—and the effectiveness of a revived John Tavares on a frenzied mission.
This Game 7 drips with reversal of misfortune promise for the Leafs. Or, as Auston Matthews divinely put it: “We’ve just got to put our balls on the line and go for it.”
His coach concurred. “I think that’s the perfect way to describe Game 7. It requires an all-in effort. Obviously nothing to save it for.
“It’s going to be two teams that leave it all out there. We believe in our group, we believe in their group. There hasn’t been much separating the two teams all the way through the series. So it is fitting that it’s a Game 7 to finish it.
“We’re in the right head space and we’re excited to get back home and to compete in front of our fans.”
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