BOSTON – “Strange,” Sheldon Keefe thought Tuesday morning, after he needed assistance locating the coaches’ room inside the bowels of TD Garden.
Here he was, the 12th-longest-tenured coach in the NHL, yet this would be his first time behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench in Boston — the long-awaited final stop on his jagged tour of the league.
Well, you always remember your first.
Keefe’s Leafs walked into the Garden, sat in a visitors’ dressing room still stirring with ghosts of playoffs past, then came onto the ice and blazed the home side with a 6-4 victory that was as convincing as it was concerning.
“Certainly, these are the types of games where you want to be great,” Keefe said. “This Boston team has been as good or better than anybody in the league for the last couple months.”
First, the good news for Leafs fans.
Kicking the week off with consecutive wins over Florida and Boston sends a memo to their fellow Atlantic Division rivals. The Maple Leafs’ two-way game is rounding into form with just a month to go, and home ice is being hunted.
“Complete” is how Keefe described his group’s effort. “We didn’t give them a lot. Managed a couple of strong pushes that they had. A real patient game, and we took advantage of the chances we did get.”
They chased Bruins starter Jeremy Swayman after two periods and had Boston coach Bruce Cassidy declaring post-game that lineup changes were coming.
"We weren't ready to play. The guys need to be ready to play,” Cassidy said. “It's a bit of a shock.”
Said Kerfoot: “Didn't give them much life there.”
Blackwell, a Harvard alum and native of Lawrance, Mass., said he hadn’t scored at the Garden since 2011, when he was in high school.
Centring Toronto’s fourth line, his first as a Leaf arrived in front of family and friends he’d missed since being drafted across the country to expansion Seattle.
“It definitely means a lot. My [29th] birthday was yesterday. My parents’ 35th wedding anniversary was yesterday. So, pretty cool little return home,” Blackwell beamed, following his first taste of the Toronto-Boston rivalry.
“It's awesome. There's a lot of passion in the building. I thought our guys did a really good job weathering their storm and playing on our toes all night. It was fun. It was physical.
“It felt like a playoff game.”
Fellow Harvard man Kerfoot scored the prettiest of the six, blocking a shot, bursting up ice and flexing some soft hands on a deke:
Now, the bad news.
Starter Petr Mrazek left the game early after injuring his groin for the third time this season, a devastating blow for a goaltender who arrived in Beantown hot off his best two performances as a Leaf. A blow, too, for a club that already offers questionable depth at the most critical position — and did not add to that depth by the trade deadline.
“Petr’s been getting some traction here and playing well, so it’s tough,” Keefe said. “But he’s been through these kinds of things before.”
In the second period, right-shot defencemen Justin Holl (a puck to the head) and Ilya Lyubushkin (a Taylor Hall punch to the head) both left injured. Neither returned.
While Rielly spoke to his defence partner postgame and noted that Lyubushkin “seemed to be doing OK,” all three injured players will require further assessment Wednesday to determine the severity of their ailments.
“You want to dig deep to make sure you finish the job and kinda do it for guys that unfortunately go down with injury,” Blackwell said.
With a sizable lead and only four D-men and backup goalie to protect it, Keefe instructed his forwards to avoid neutral-zone turnovers. The coach was even ready to deploy a centreman or two on the back end, but the quartet of Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren managed the extra minutes just fine.
“You're kind of hyper-aware if you're trapped in your own zone,” Rielly said. “I think we iced the puck probably more than... we would like to.”
As the Leafs pulled away with a 6-1 lead, the Bruins got chippy. In addition to Hall’s rabbit punch, Brad Marchand was dealt a 10-minute misconduct for cross-checking John Tavares a couple of times away from the play as time expired in the second period.
“That was in response to us pulling away in the game, being in control,” Keefe said. “So, it was a good job by our guys to make the game that way and then just continue to play.”
Added Kerfoot: “If they want to go around and do that, they’re more than welcome to. It doesn't bother us at all.”
The Maple Leafs — two points richer, one goalie thinner — fly home to host the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, when more physicality could ensue.
“We're looking forward to the next game,” Kerfoot said. “We gotta keep this thing rolling and winning more games down the stretch to solidify our spot going into the playoffs.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• The salary cap will raise $1 million for 2022-23, to $82.5 million. The Maple Leafs have already committed about $73.6 million of that in player salaries.
That leaves roughly $8.9 million to re-sign RFAs Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Pierre Engvall, and Ondrej Kase; re-sign or replace UFAs Ilya Mikheyev, Jason Spezza, Colin Blackwell, Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin; and, most importantly, extend Jack Campbell or find a suitable substitute.
• Consider Campbell (rib) day-to-day, so don’t rule him out for a return Thursday. Perfect timing considering Mrazek’s status.
“He doesn’t look far off,” Keefe says.
“He's a big part of our team. And just his attitude and his enthusiasm in the locker room every day seeing him, it's good,” Matthews says. “I know he's itching to get back and play.”
• William Nylander is a team-worst and career-worst minus-14. Last season he was a plus-10.
“It's something that I don't like, obviously,” he says of being caught on ice for so many goals against. “It's a s----- feeling.
“There are a couple ones, like maybe in Montreal, where I can have that guy and avoid that being a goal, but it's just been happening in some weird ways.”
• John Tavares now has his own granola, Recipe 91.
Canadians can buy boxes at Sobeys or online ($29.99 for two boxes).
“[My wife] Aryne and I really enjoyed the process of creating this, and we hope everyone will enjoy it as much as we do,” Tavares said.