TAMPA – Sometime around late February or early March, Sheldon Keefe could see Alexander Kerfoot clawing out of his funk.
Kerfoot was in the midst of a troublesome contract year. He couldn’t find his finish, and plenty outside the Maple Leafs’ walls wondered if he was finished in Toronto.
Ping-ponging up and down the lineup, the utility forward saw his production fall off a cliff and his shooting percentage plummet to a career-worst 7.5. He missed two penalty shots. His ice time was chopped by 36 seconds year over year.
One might wonder if his uncertain future was distracting. Or if, perhaps, he was still bothered by that costly high-sticking penalty and that drop pass to misery he’d made at Amalie Arena in Game 6 of the 2022 series against these same Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Things haven’t gone great for him at times. He hasn’t been happy with his play. His production this year [10 goals, 32 points] was below the standard that he would like it to be at and that we think he’s capable of,” Keefe said.
Yet Keefe recognized Kerfoot’s work ethic and positive attitude. He’d often throw him over the boards with the superstars, driving some armchair coaches nuts.
The message a couple months ago was one of encouragement. Faith. Trust.
And it came parcelled with a premonition.
“I told him at that time, I felt pretty strongly that he was going to score a massive goal for us this season,” Keefe revealed Monday night, following Toronto’s stunning 5-4 overtime comeback win in Tampa.
“Didn’t know when it was going to come. I just felt a guy that works as hard as he does and as good as he is for the leadership and the spirit of just, it’s the kind of guy that usually gets rewarded. And should get rewarded. So, I was thrilled he was the guy to get it done tonight.”
They all were.
For these are the moments that rewrite narratives, flip perceptions and remind us how wonderfully unpredictable sports can be.
“Huge. He’s an unbelievable teammate. He brings it every day. We’re extremely fortunate to have him,” says Morgan Rielly, who notched the tying goal in a frenzied three-goal third-period rally.
“You know, I’ve known him for a long time. So, thinking about how hard he works and everything he brings, and then he buries that? I mean, you just want to grab him. Like, you’re just so happy. And for him to contribute in that way is crazy.
“I could not be happier for anybody.”
Not only did Kerfoot go to the blue paint and tip home the power-play dagger in the fourth frame to slam a cherry on top of the worst collapse in Lightning playoff history, he also drew a meaningful hooking penalty on Zach Bogosian that led to an Auston Matthews power-play strike that helped keep the pendulum swinging in the visitors’ direction.
Tampa had built a commanding 4-1 lead after 40 minutes and started the third on the man-advantage.
It. Was 4-1.
Kill the penalty. Chip away. Don’t back down.
That was Toronto’s narrowed focus. The game seemed too big to wrap the hope around. Just win the period.
Then, in a span of 6:20, with its superstars leading the charge, they had stolen the belief and snatched the mask off Andrei Vasilevskiy, Scooby-Doo style, revealing him as human.
Vasilevskiy has surrendered an astonishing 19 goals over these four games, and his hideous .856 save percentage is a major reason why the Leafs now have a 3-1 stranglehold in a series where the ice may not be tilted Toronto’s way.
“We’ve done a ton of good things, and we’ve scored enough goals to win. In the end, you’ve got to keep them out of the net. You can’t be giving up this amount of goals,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Toronto has figured out that deflecting and screening sifters from distance is Vasilevskiy’s Kryptonite. Former Bolts assistant Derek Lalonde revealed as much on the Sportsnet broadcast:
“We’ve got to do a better job of being in front, tying up sticks, ultimately getting in lanes and trying to get those blocks,” Anthony Cirelli said. “They do a good job of getting them through, but that’s a big thing we’ve got to focus on for next game is tying up those sticks.”
Kerfoot’s stick was free, and the ol’ twig had some magic in it after all.
“Kerfoot is loved,” Mitch Marner said, “more than, I think, anyone in this locker room, to be honest. He gets the most chirps and love that anyone gets.”
After the hugs and leaps, Marner broke off from the celebration to go and dig out Kerfoot’s game-winning puck from the back of Vasilevskiy’s vacated net: “It’s awesome seeing him get rewarded.”
The 28-year-old is in the final months of an expiring contract, and GM Kyle Dubas had been given the option to trade Kerfoot to St. Louis at the deadline as part of the Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari package.
Instead, Dubas paid the Minnesota Wild a 2025 fourth-round pick to retain 50 per cent of O’Reilly’s salary and keep Kerfoot safe from six weeks of meaningless hockey.
In essence, that decision, which was made around the same time as Keefe’s prophecy, allowed Kerfoot to hang around long enough for this slice of redemption in a haunted town, some rope to score “a massive goal.”
“This is what you dream about. You dream about playing for a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs and be in a position where expectations are high and you have the opportunity to go make a run. We know that the playoffs in Toronto are a special thing, and we want to extend that for as long as we can. And make it fun,” Kerfoot said, mere minutes after the trade deadline passed.
On Monday, the Game 4 hero struck a measured tone at the podium, aware that a 3-1 lead doesn’t guarantee squat for this organization: “I don’t want to make any bigger than it is. It’s an overtime goal in the playoffs, which is big. Doesn’t obviously make up for anything else that I’ve done, but my mindset is just the next day and moving forward.”
Earlier this season, however, Kerfoot revealed that returning to Tampa stirred tough feelings from the Leafs’ collapse in Game 6, the way places and smells and songs can dust off old memories.
“My emotions were not great. Obviously, you never want to be on that side of things. And it’s different in a team sport than it is an individual sport,” Kerfoot said.
“In an individual sport, you can live with those mistakes a little bit easier because it’s all on you. In a team sport, you make a mistake like that, it impacts the group. It impacts the organization. It impacts the fan base who cares so much about this team. So, yeah, it sucks.
“I mean, I care a lot about this game, this sport, this team. I want to do my best for this group.”
Game 5 goes Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.
Tampa Bay has now lost nine of its past 10 playoff overtime games. The last time they dropped three in a row was 2019, when they were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The three-time Eastern Conference champs look vulnerable, their goaltender flawed.
Imagine: It’s the Maple Leafs on the right side of a collapse, the happy end of overtime.
Everything is coming up Kerfoot.
“Credit to the group. The spirit of the group carrying us through. To come back in this fashion is outstanding to witness and be a part of,” Keefe said.
“I’m very hopeful that we look at it as a positive sign of the spirit of our team, what we’re capable of, what we can overcome. And just that it feels different.
“Let’s keep pushing here.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Rielly, wearing a black eye, was booed lustily by Amalie Arena every time he touched the puck, as Lightning fans are still sour over his collision with Brayden Point in Game 3.
Yet all he does is come up big in this series.
“He’s just a competitor. I think it doesn’t matter what the situation is, he’s there and he’s in the fight, in the battle every single night. And it’s a guy that you love to go to battle with,” Auston Matthews says.
“He’s the backbone of our defensive end.”
• Matt Knies’s goal-line save was a thing of guts and beauty. Doesn’t get much closer than this:
Since losing the NCAA championship in a heartbreaking overtime at Amalie Arena, Knies has won three consecutive games in this same barn, two in OT.
He is 6-0 as a Maple Leaf and was on the ice when Kerfoot’s winner bent the twine.
“It’s nice to be on the winning side of it,” Knies says.
“I didn’t want to just come here to be here. I wanted to come here to be a difference, to be an impact.”
• Alex Killorn, a three-time 25-goal scorer, went completely dry in Tampa Bay’s 23-game run to the 2022 Cup final. His opening power-play goal was his first in 30(!) playoff games. A biggie. Then he went bard-down with a snipe in the second period.
He and Matthews were tied with a game-high seven shots.
• Quote of the Day.
“You won’t find that guy in a scrum.” —Pat Maroon, on frenemy O’Reilly’s unwillingness to engage in his antics
• Who comes out of Toronto’s lineup for Michael Bunting in Game 5?
It cannot be Knies.
Would Keefe dare healthy-scratch Bunting and leave a lineup that has now won three in a row untouched?