Källgren rapidly stabilizing the Maple Leafs’ most fragile position

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox break down the Toronto Maple Leafs' 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, saying rookie goaltender Erik Källgren continues to impress in the crease, and the team should gain a lot of confidence from the decisive victory.

TORONTO – One day Erik Källgren is being outfitted for a custom Toronto St. Pat’s mask.

The next day… what? A bronzed statue on Legends Row?

Sure, we kid about the rapid ascension of “King Erik” — who arrived at his second NHL start with a fluorescent green crown emblazoned on his forehead. But the Swedish callup has fast stabilized the most fragile position on the team.

“It’s been one of the most eventful weeks of my life,” Källgren said. “It’s surreal.”

It’s one thing to shutout a bubble team with the 19th-best offence like the Dallas Stars, as the 25-year-old did Tuesday.

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It’s quite another to backstop the Toronto Maple Leafs to a tidy 3-2 victory over a relentless powerhouse like the Carolina Hurricanes, get outshot 36-21, and outduel Vezina candidate and long-serving Leaf Frederik Andersen in the process.

“You’d think it’d be natural for him to get caught up in it and get really excited,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I’m not sure if I’ve seen him smile yet. That just speaks to his demeanour.

“He’s not getting eaten up by the moment and the opportunity. He’s confident in himself, he’s prepared, and he’s just trusting his abilities.”

Confirms Mitch Marner: “Just comes in and does his job.”

Keeping the goals against under three in consecutive games — that’s a job that hasn’t been accomplished here for a month.

“Our goalie played unbelievable,” gushed Ondrej Kase. “I know last game he had a shutout, but this game was so much harder for him…. Carolina is a great team.”

The Hurricanes rushed out of the gates, jumping to a 11-1 lead in shots. But Källgren withstood the surging storm, warmed up with point shots, and the skaters in front of him committed to a patient game.

And when the Leafs finally got their chances, they cashed in.

Speedster Ilya Mikheyev used his legs and his much-improved shooting percentage to pump the home side on the board in the first period — a reward for all those determined third-line shifts that begin in the defensive end.

Marner rushed down the right wing in the second. Waiting for a decoy passing option up the middle, he paused before firing far side and beating old pal Andersen low blocker.

“Just trying to switch things up,” Marner said. “Freddie’s known me a long time. He obviously always thinks I’m gonna pass first.”

Carolina’s Ethan Bear snapped Källgren’s consecutive save streak at 61, chopping the Leafs’ lead in half four minutes into the third period.

But Kase struck right back, converting a pretty no-look saucer feed from linemate William Nylander on a 2-on-1 and extending his goal streak to three games.

In the same barn where Andersen was encouraged with “Fred-die! Fred-die!” chants for five years, he was now hit with bursts of sarcastic “Frrrrredddddie” razzes from fans.

Vincent Trocheck scored with three seconds remaining, but Källgren and the Leafs defenders did enough to withstand Carolina’s push and lock up the points.

When the Maple Leafs play the way Keefe urges them to, their style resembles that of the Hurricanes, tops in the Eastern Conference. Toronto’s talent, of course, is more frontloaded, but they exit their zone quickly and try to use waves of up-ice speed to break the opposition.

They’re competitive on loose pucks and let their goalie see shots from the perimeter.

“In terms of puck pressure and structure and how Carolina plays, they’re the class of the league in a lot of regards,” Keefe had said pre-game. 

“When we’re at our best, we do that well. We haven’t done it with the consistency we’d like in order to get into that class. We’re not far away from that and tonight’s an opportunity for us to get there.”

Opportunity seized.

Källgren and the Maple Leafs have ripped off two home wins this eventful week, thriving — not just surviving — during Auston Matthews’ suspension.

Between wins, the goalie finally had a chance to catch his breath and FaceTime his parents back in Sweden. It was an emotional conversation, considering Källgren hasn’t seen them in eight months now. Twice they tried to fly over to see their son live his dream. 

Källgren had COVID the first time; now they have it. But that hasn’t dampened their joy over this fairy tale playing out across the Atlantic.

“They’re really happy,” Källgren said.

The team flies to Nashville Friday for Saturday’s game versus the Predators. Not only will Matthews return, but it will be the team’s final action before Monday’s trade deadline.

One guess who starts in net.

Fox’s Fast 5

• Wayne Simmonds served back-to-back healthy scratches, just as Jason Spezza did last week. Curiously, Simmonds did not participate at morning skate and was removed from the Leafs roster post-game. (Alex Steeves was added to the NHL roster on an emergency recall.)

A well-rested Kyle Clifford has looked strong on the fourth line. Straight lines, finishes checks.

“This is home. It’s Toronto. I take a lot of pride putting that sweater on,” says Clifford, who spoke to reporters for the first time since signing his two-year extension. “To win in Toronto would obviously be an incredible opportunity.”

• You can tell Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour is still a tiny bit sour that he lost a dependable, smart assistant, Dean Chynoweth, to Keefe over the summer.

It’s not lost on Carolina that Toronto’s penatly kill has grown more aggressive and more effective as a result.

“Good on them to go get him and, you know, take the good stuff with him,” said Brind’Amour, wryly. “I’m happy for Dean. That was a good move for him.”

Keefe admits that he’s modelled some of his group’s style and structure after Carolina’s way of attacking the game.

“We look at Carolina a lot, because of Dean’s connection,” Keefe says. “Having Dean on our staff gives us great insight into how things run in Carolina, and they’ve obviously established a great culture there.”

• Keefe didn’t realize he’d secured his 100th win Tuesday until John Tavares handed him the game puck. 

“Coaches don’t win games. Teams do,” says Keefe. He mentions the good fortune of being surrounded by talented players, trainers and executives. “If anything it’s provided me the opportunity to say thank to everybody for the work they’ve done.”

• Before he cracked the NHL, Keefe memorably spent an NFL training camp shadowing Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks

One of the elements he stole from that experience? Cranking music during practices.

• Toronto’s green and white St. Pat’s kits looked brilliant against the Hurricanes red unis. St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas all at once.

“The gear is sharp. It’s bright. It’s different,” Keefe says. “It’s nice seeing the guys fly around in it.”

Both Källgren and Petr Mrazek (a massive gear head) got special tricked-out masks and pads for the occasion. Källgren says his mask design was courtesy of Marlies equipment manager Will Burns and the glowing crown a nod to the Marlies logo.

Matthews added a green flash to his custom skate boots. Only those at morning skate got to see them, though.

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