In the middle of another third period the Toronto Maple Leafs wouldn’t win, Sheldon Keefe looked up and down his listless bench and decided a day off would do them some good.
“I think our group looks tired here again today,” said the coach, his tone growing increasingly dissatisfied as this road trip wears on.
“It seemed like we hit a wall there and stopped playing for a good chunk of time in that third period. No life, no energy on our bench at a time when we needed it. So that, to me, is a sign of fatigue.”
Show us the NHL team that hasn’t had to deke through quarantines, injuries and herky-jerky schedule switches, and we’ll show you a government pandemic plan that pleases all citizens.
Keefe’s crew isn’t unique in that the Leafs were rolling through December in a groove only to get blindsided out of rhythm by postponed dates, forced house arrests, a fan-less home rink, and uneven competition.
In 2022, the Leafs went from easy games against depleted Ottawa and Edmonton rosters to high-tempo showdowns against Colorado and Vegas prior to losing 2-1 to the tanking Arizona Coyotes in Wednesday’s second half of a back-to-back.
“Makes me start to wonder about our conditioning and where we're at there. But clearly, we've got to find ways to be rising to the occasion at the right times rather than falling flat,” Keefe challenged.
The coach wanted his goalie, Petr Mrazek, to make one more big save after a 32-day layoff from game action. And he wanted his skaters to press harder with two points still up for grabs late.
So: How do these Leafs get back up to speed?
“Play more games,” Keefe said. “Conditioning improves. Pace improves. [You get] used to grinding through it, pushing through it.”
Hockey gonna hockey
What Keefe could’ve done is simply credit Coyotes goaltender Karel Vejmelka for a first-star performance and move on.
That would be the preferred narrative of the beastly Auston Matthews, a force all night.
“We really controlled the play for the most part of the game,” Matthews said. “Sometimes you just run into a hot goalie, and you got to tip your hat to him.”
That’s the way Timothy Liljegren viewed things too: “Their goalie had an unbelievable night, and it just wasn’t our night.”
The Leafs probably didn’t deserve to swipe three of four points in Colorado and Vegas to start the trip; they definitely didn’t deserve to walk out of Gila River Arena with zero.
Toronto outshot the Coyotes 46-18, outchanced them 48-23, and generated 5.89 expected goals to Arizona’s 2.07.
The Leafs kicked off the contest with 10 shots on back-to-back power plays but came up empty in the first period.
At various stretches the TV viewer might double-check the score bug to see if Toronto was back on a power-play because the puck hardly left the Yotes’ zone at 5-on-5.
The shots were 15-2 for the visitors when Ryan Dzingel, playing his first game since Dec. 10, tipped a fluttering puck past Mrazek and drew first blood.
“Clearly didn't make good on our chances,” Keefe said. “We generated more than enough to score far more than we did. But didn't execute and find ways to make it harder on their goaltender once he got in a groove.”
Matthews gonna Matthews
Toronto’s lone goal arrived in the first minute of the third period but on its 36th shot of the night.
Matthews sniped his patented pulled wrister top-shelf and clean past Vejmelka, giving him goals in nine consecutive road games (11 total), a Maple Leafs record.
“He continues to make it happen,” John Tavares says. “Teams obviously are game-planning for him, and his ability to raise to the challenge, look forward to that challenge, adapt his game and find different ways to create opportunities.
“Not surprising, hitting a franchise record like that. When it's all said and done, he's gonna have quite a few.”
Czech who’s in net
A relative unknown, Vejmelka is a 25-year-old import whose NHL.com headshot is just a silhouette of a goalie mask.
He appeared in seven Czech pro seasons before coming to this side of the pond to experience the Arizona rebuild.
The big rookie (six-foot-four, 224 pounds) has played decent hockey in relative obscurity, entering Wednesday’s game with the weakest goal support in the league (1.56 goals per game support).
The Maple Leafs have four players — Matthews, Tavares, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly — with more points than Arizona’s highest scorer (Clayton Keller, 26).
So, it makes sense that the Coyotes would need to squeak out a 2-1 decision to get Vejmelka a win.
The touch on this Tavares lob pass to Nylander…
“It's just mostly instinct in the moment and probably just getting a good understanding of playing with Willy,” Tavares explains.
“Willy's just got great anticipation of when to take advantage and stretching the ice when the puck turns over — and he can read that play. So, it's up to me to try to find him and get it to him whatever way possible.
“Hopefully next time it can result in a goal.”
An ex-Leaf on every line
A ghost of Maple Leafs past hopped the boards with every Coyotes shift.
Spread across four different lines, the names Travis Boyd, Phil Kessel, Riley Nash, and Alex Galchenyuk took turns bringing back memories for Leafs Nation.
Galchenyuk picked up a revenge assist on Dzingel’s winner, his second of the night and a rare rush goal for the Coyotes.
But Contract Year Kessel was the most noticeable of the bunch, thrilling with a couple of offensive bursts that had “trade bait” written all over them.
Toronto is on the brink of full health, finally
It only took until 35 games, but it appears the Maple Leafs will have a 100 per cent healthy lineup for Saturday’s tilt in St. Louis.
Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall (COVID protocol) are set to join the club in Arizona on Thursday, a day off, and should be available to practise Friday and — if medical gives the green light — play Saturday.
This spells bad news for Nick Ritchie, who already cleared waivers last week and could slide off the active roster until needed.
Marner and Engvall instantly make Toronto’s penalty kill better, and Engvall improves the fourth line’s speed, strength and defensive responsibility.
Yes, Matthews has had no issue producing in Marner’s absence, but defensively the Leafs are a more porous group.
“Two big impact players. Guys that are key parts of our lineup,” Tavares says. “Mitchy is one of the best wingers in the league and plays in every situation for us, a guy we count on and you know, and Pierre continues to mature and make an impact for us.”