TORONTO — Head coach Sheldon Keefe spelled it out as clearly as he could. He put the formula up in lights.
“You want to be an elite team? You need to be elite in managing games,” Keefe had said Tuesday after a few key lapses in judgement turned a comeback win against Vegas into an overtime loss. “You’ve got to close that game out.”
Given a chance at a do-over on Friday night, the Maple Leafs found themselves on the wrong end of yet another painful lesson in what that means.
“I thought it was a clinic by the Pittsburgh Penguins in terms of how they defended,” Keefe said Friday after those Penguins left Scotiabank Arena with a 4-2 win over his Maple Leafs. “They made it hard — we were on the wall a lot, and we couldn’t find our way through that. That’s the difference in the game.”
If the bench boss needed a clearer blueprint to show his young leaders after watching them let their previous tilt slip away, the follow-up effort should serve as a worthy companion lesson.
Through 40 minutes of what wound up a high-flying back-and-forth between two clubs not short on dynamic offensive talent, Toronto seemed right where they needed to be. With a cadre of hockey legends watching on — the evening beginning with a centre-ice ceremony for the Hall of Fame’s incoming class — one of the future Hall inductees in black and yellow was threatening to take the night over, Evgeni Malkin wiring home an early tying goal and later facilitating a go-ahead tally courtesy of a spinning backhand dish to a wide-open Jason Zucker.
But the Maple Leafs were holding strong. After knocking at the door with chance after chance — the most promising of them a sharp-angle shot wired through the crease and off the far post — William Nylander burst through with a statement man-advantage one-timer to knot things up late in the second period. Toronto was getting its chances, pushing Pittsburgh back, gearing up for a knockout punch.
Then Brock McGinn walked in and beat Erik Kallgren with a straight shot two minutes into the final period — the first Penguins goal the netminder had any real chance of stopping. At this point, Pittsburgh turned their attention to the type of lockdown defensive effort Keefe’s been waiting to see from his own group.
After outshooting Pittsburgh 26-15 through the opening two periods, the Maple Leafs were held to just four shots through the third, a blanket thrown over their every attempt at another tying goal, before the Pens tossed in an empty-netter for good measure.
But even before that educational final frame, there were earlier hints the Maple Leafs hadn’t learned their lesson, Keefe said post-game.
“I thought some of the first period was okay, not nearly as good as we would expect. [But] we’re up 1-0. We’re in a good spot there — we get a good goal by (Zach) Aston-Reese, gives us a lead. And then I was really disappointed in how we closed out that period,” the coach said. “We give them one back.”
Twice the Penguins were able to grab hold of the game after a strong push from the Leafs. And Toronto had its chances to pull the night back the other way, too. In the end, the difference was one club’s ability to shut down the trade-off when it mattered most, to shift their mindset from highlight-reel offence to game-winning defence.
Now, one club heads home with the early makings of a win streak, the other with a newly growing pile of L’s.
“To me, it goes back to just how connected we can be, and how we can manage the puck, and how we can get on top of teams,” Keefe said of why his club hasn’t yet found its rhythm. “That’s really what we need to do a better job of. You know, sequences are ending too quickly — we’re at our best when we get second, third, fourth opportunities to play on offence. We haven’t had enough of those as a team. Just managing the puck needs to be better.
“That was the biggest factor in the game here today. We didn’t manage it well enough.”