If Sheldon Keefe could choose different words than the ones he used in those heated moments Wednesday after the Toronto Maple Leafs surrendered five unanswered goals and lost 6-3 to the New York Rangers, he would.
The head coach began his first appearance since his “soft and purposeless” description of his group’s play not by taking questions but by clarifying (softening?) his post-loss criticism.
“We've competed at a really high level all season long, and we have been a team that's difficult to play against,” Keefe said Friday after practice.
“When we're at our best, we're a team that has played with the best in the league and established ourselves among the best in the league. And that's been through a foundation of competitiveness and physicality and our structure. We continue to work at the consistency piece; that's where we need to continue to work to get better."
All those elements vanished after the first period Wednesday, when the Leafs eased off the gas and saw an opponent claw back and erase Toronto’s 3-1 lead for the fourth time in their past five outings.
“Our standards slipped the other night in playing with the lead in the second and third periods, and we can't win by playing that way,” Keefe continued. “We've earned the right to have high expectations and high standards around here. [We] continue to push and challenge our team towards those standards. But, really, that was what I was getting at the other night.”
Purposeless is one thing, but publicly saying your hockey team got exposed for being soft kicks opens a door for the critics of a roster build on a foundation of high-end skill.
Here’s the line Keefe used Wednesday that got the most traction: “I just thought we got exposed today for being a team that was just soft. Soft and purposeless and just kind of playing the game and just hoping it was gonna work out.”
Keefe said he did not address his players immediately after the loss at Madison Square Garden, but he did deliver the same message to their faces in the second intermission as he did at the podium.
“I don't say things to the media, especially if it's to that effect, that I haven't already mentioned or spoken in that tone to the team,” Keefe said. “So they're not caught by surprise in that sense.”
"I don't think he's wrong. I think, as a group, we have to do more in D zone. I think we have to protect our goalie a bit more and protect our net front,” said Rielly, adding that he was unaware of Keefe’s comments.
“To be honest, I hadn't heard that yet. So, I don't think players you know put too much merit into what happens in post-game media. I think it's a matter of that being the honest answer. I don't think we played real hard game, especially in the third. But as players, you're not really too worried about what's going on in terms of post-game comments, to be honest with you.”
Just as Keefe is making his players accountable, the coach is either being held accountable or holding himself accountable for the adjectives he chooses when addressing a combustible market.
“My belief in this team is extremely strong, and that's why the expectations are so high — and why the disappointment is there when we don't meet those expectations,” Keefe said. “There's a high level of accountability around here amongst ourselves and to our fans.”
One-Timers: Backup Petr Mrazek starts Saturday versus the Islanders and their 30th-best offence. Keefe says this is “a scheduled start” and not a reflection on Jack Campbell…. Left-shot defenceman Carl Dahlstrom will make his Maple Leafs debut alongside Travis Dermott on the third pairing…. Ondrej Kase and Justin Holl have been freed from COVID protocol. They’ll skate Saturday morning after a 10-day layoff but are not expected to play until Wednesday.