PITTSBURGH – The last time the skaters inside Toronto Maple Leafs sweaters flew to Pittsburgh and laid an egg this rotten, they were playing to get their coach fired.
We’re certainly not arguing that is the same case now, a mere six games into the first fresh 82-game slate of Sheldon Keefe’s NHL bench career.
But something is sorely amiss in the early going, as evidenced by a rested team’s sloppy and punchless performance in back-to-back losses to San Jose and Pittsburgh — two teams the supposedly high-octane Leafs should outscore on cruise control.
Instead, the engine light is blinking, there’s an oil spot swelling on the garage floor, and the ghost of Kasimir Kaskisuo was spotted floating up in the rafters of PPG Paints Arena Saturday, mingling with all those Penguins championship banners from an era you don't need Grandpa to remember.
Dressing a Band-Aid lineup with their multi-ringed core (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jeff Carter, Bryan Rust) ravaged by COVID tests and injury, the Penguins crumpled up the roster that looked better on paper and blazed the Leafs 7-1.
“I have a lot of thoughts,” Keefe said, in a postgame pall. “Not many good ones.”
The undrafted Drew Connor (he of 13 career big-league games and listed as a left wing) scored twice playing centre. Defenceman Mike Matheson beat Jake Muzzin wide and Justin Holl to the far post during a wraparound rush goal that was as beautiful as it was rare. Stay-at-home D-man Marcus Pettersson — who has never scored more than twice in a season — jumped up in a rush to pump home the Pens’ fifth marker.
And former (brief) Leafs Brian Boyle and Evan Rodrigues piled on the party.
“They’ve got a winning culture about them. No matter who’s in the lineup, they go in games expecting to win,” Alexander Kerfoot said.
Toronto, conversely, has tiptoed into its games this autumn and hardly looks like a group that, as the players say, has turned the page from last spring’s collapse.
Their opposition has now scored first in five out of six games.
“It's tough playing from behind, and we’ve been doing it too much here lately. And this one got away on us,” Keefe said.
“Give Pittsburgh full marks. They were fast and competitive all through the game. They don't make it easy on you. At times we were careless with the puck, they made us pay for it.”
So even though it was encouraging to see veteran Jason Spezza strike back immediately after O’Connor opened the scoring and tie the contest 1-1 after the first frame, what transpired afterward was nothing short of a nationally broadcast embarrassment.
Instead of chasing the game, the Leafs simply shrugged and let it whiz by them. Pittsburgh was revving a motorcycle through a bicycle lane.
The Maple Leafs took four minor penalties in the offensive zone and committed thrice as many turnovers.
They gave up two goals in one 15-second span.
And, mercifully, after the “CAMP-bell!” razzes rang out, Keefe threw backup Michael Hutchinson to the wolves in the third, so he could mop up some of the abuse.
At one point, the lusty Penguins fans began doing The Wave like they were bobbing up and down in Exhibition Stadium circa 1985.
The Leafs, now 2-3-1, have slipped under .500 for the first time in a regular season since Keefe assumed the helm.
The coach’s main concern is no longer whether Travis Dermott can play the right side or if Nick Ritchie is a smart fit with his handsomely paid superstars.
The Leafs’ issue is grander and more unruly than tactical decisions. It’s psychological.
“The biggest thing to manage right now is just the mood and the belief in the group. It's easy to start doubting and questioning things when things aren't going your way,” Keefe said.
“The difficult thing is to dig in and recognize that the league is very good. And you cut corners even one little bit, teams make you pay for it.”
While some Leafs spoke of missed chances or sticking with the plan, Muzzin opted for a dose of uncomfortable truth.
“They did a lot of things right, and it started with outworking us. And that just fuelled them. They were quick in their zone, quick in (the) neutral (zone), they were winning puck battles, and they outplayed us,” Muzzin said.
So how do you explain getting outworked on the heels of a flat showing at home to San Jose Friday?
“It's inexcusable,” Muzzin replied. “Myself. Everyone. We all need to be better.”
The Penguins, remarkably, have improved to 17-8 all-time when Crosby and Malkin are simultaneously sidelined.
“They got a lot of speed, lot of tenacity. They play a very structured game, very quick game,” Keefe said.
“They're a team that's playing without some very key people, but they found success here early in the season despite that, so they've got confidence in their ability to do that.”
Boy, the Maple Leafs could use an injection of that while they charter to Carolina for Monday's showdown with the undefeated Frederik Andersen.
“The mood ain’t great. You lose like that, it’s not a good mood,” Muzzin said.
“But it's early in the season. It's a test for us. And let’s see how we respond.”
Fox’s Fast Five
• Ageless fourth-line wonder Jason Spezza now leads the Leafs with three goals. Not since a 14-year-old me washed dishes and bussed tables at Pizza Hut has a guy worked so hard for minimum wage.
• Travis Dermott was healthy-scratched for the first time this season to keep Timothy Liljegren in rotation.
“We just want Liljegren to stay fresh and stay moving here. We don't want him sitting for too long,” Keefe explained. “We don't think he's done anything to not be in the top six. It just so happens you can only play six.”
• Evan “E-Rod” Rodrigues centred the Penguins top line, which featured winger Kasperi Kapanen — the same guy he was traded to Toronto for in a 2020 package deal.
Coach Mike Sullivan spoke highly of Kapanen ahead of his first game versus his old team.
“There really isn't any aspect of the game that he can't play. He's big and strong. He can play a grind game down low. He's capable of that. His speed off the rush is very threatening. He can really shoot the puck,” Sullivan said.
“We’re excited and encouraged about where his game can inevitably grow.”
• Alexander Kerfoot and David Kämpf were minus-4. Ondrej Kase, Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin were all minus-3.
• Sullivan on Crosby leading his group to two Stanley Cups (plus a Team Canada World Cup) despite dealing with a wrist injury since 2014:
“What it says about Sid: I just think he's a competitive guy, loves to play, and he's tough. He's tough. There’s no other way to say it. He plays through a lot — not just his wrist. He plays a hard game. He plays in the battle areas. For a player of his stature, that's a superstar player, he's a guy that doesn't play on the perimeter. He does his best work in the traffic. I personally think he's the best player in the game in the traffic. I just think that's an indication of his physical toughness and his mental toughness and his competitiveness. He's just got an appetite to win, and he wants to be on the ice — and he plays through a lot to do it.”