GLENDALE, Ariz. — About that Maple Leafs losing streak.
Never mind. Not on Sheldon Keefe’s watch.
A day after the Mike Babcock era ended, the Leafs in their first game under Keefe played with the kind of passion that has been embarrassingly absent, beating the Arizona Coyotes 3-1 at Gila River Arena on Thursday night.
Keefe won his first game behind the bench in the National Hockey League. We’re guessing it’s going to be the start of a trend.
The Leafs’ six-game skid came to a sudden halt as Frederik Andersen made 30 saves, with Arizona’s Vinnie Hinostroza breaking the shutout bid with 17 seconds to play.
The Leafs, who visit Nazem Kadri and the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday, played a smarter, more efficient and more determined brand of hockey than they have in a while. Put it this way: They did not look like a team going in frustrating circles, as they had been lately under Babcock.
The breakouts generally were better, and there was sustained pressure in the offensive zone thanks to some fine work on the cycle. It was the kind of possession game that had been elusive in Babcock’s final weeks.
Tyson Barrie, who has struggled all season and had said in the morning that the coaching change represented “a new lease,” took the weight of the world off his shoulders when he scored with 46 seconds remaining in the first period, marking just the sixth time in 24 games Toronto scored first. It was the first time since Nov. 5 the Leafs led in a game.
Barrie scored his first goal with Toronto when he broke in from the point and fired a shot past Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper. The relief and joy on Barrie’s face was obvious.
“(Keefe) talked a lot about just playing free and feeling good about ourselves and our game,” captain John Tavares said after the morning skate. “We’re all going to have to stay with it and compete and do everything we can to get the results as changes are made.”
Consider it a success after one game.
Auston Matthews snapped a career-long nine-game streak without a goal on the road when he scored at 48 seconds of the third period … Pierre Engvall’s first NHL goal came after he took the puck in the neutral zone and broke in alone on Kuemper, beating the goalie with a shot along the ice. The goal at 16:49 of the second was shorthanded. Engvall became the fourth Leaf and first since Wally Boyer in 1965 to score his first NHL goal while the team was shorthanded … Matthews in the morning, on what changes might be noticeable immediately: “Activating our D.” Rather evident on Barrie’s goal … The Leafs still required Andersen to make several key saves, among them point-blank stops on Nick Schmaltz and Jason Demers, as well as a stop on Derek Stepan not long before Engvall’s goal … Keefe teased parts of Leafs Nation on the opening shift, putting Barrie with Morgan Rielly. That didn’t last as Keefe used the same pairs Babcock did in his final game … One significant difference Keefe made was putting Ilya Mikheyev on Tavares’ left and moving Zach Hyman to the right side. “Mick has so much potential and he is just scratching the surface,” Tavares said … Alex Kerfoot was back after missing three games following facial dental surgery and wore a full mask. Kerfoot played with Jason Spezza and Kasperi Kapanen on the third line … Nick Shore was a healthy scratch for the first time since Oct. 10 … The injured Mitch Marner, dressed in workout clothes, watched the morning skate from the Leafs bench.
Some further thoughts and quotes off the morning availabilities of general manager Kyle Dubas and president Brendan Shanahan:
* Though Keefe was always going to be Babcock’s replacement, Dubas lamented not being able to make it work with Babcock. “I’m disappointed in myself, and only myself, that it didn’t work out, that we couldn’t become simpatico on every single topic,” Dubas said. “Sheldon and I have, in our past time together, have had some of the biggest disagreements and arguments I’ve ever had with anybody I’ve worked with. I think (himself and Keefe) were largely philosophically and in terms of style of play – we’ve always been aligned and been on the same page.”
* Did Babcock lose the room? Shanahan’s answer, from the perspective of a former NHL player: “I don’t know if I’d characterize it that way, that the coach had lost the room. I think that certainly from a players’ perspective, you could see the frustration in their eyes. There was sort of a belief missing in them. When things are going poorly like that a lot of things are running through your mind during the hockey game. You could almost see it in their faces, things that don’t necessarily even involve the hockey game.”
* Dubas met with the players on Wednesday afternoon after firing Babcock. What did he say? “I have a deep belief in them,” Dubas said. “What I really asked from them was that this is not an easy time. What I asked from them was just solely their increased focus, concentration, work ethic and the ability to be a little bit uncomfortable, because we’re going to go through some changes stylistically and with our systems.”