Sheldon Keefe points at Maple Leafs’ ‘elite players’ in sleepy loss to Coyotes

Shayne Gostisbehere had a third period go-ahead power play goal and a potential equalizer was called back as the Arizona Coyotes defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

TORONTO – How many bullets does Sheldon Keefe have left in the chamber?

After the Toronto Maple Leafs coughed up Wednesday’s opener in Montreal, the head coach deemed it an “unacceptable” showing against last year’s 32nd-place team.

Following Monday’s 4-2 sleepy defeat to the Arizona Coyotes — last year’s 31st-place outfit and a house-of-cards roster purposely constructed to collapse — Keefe gestured toward his offensive superstars.

No stinker, it seems, will fade quietly in this season of desperation and expectation.

“Our best people have not found a rhythm,” Keefe said.

“The difference between us and Arizona is that we have elite players. And our elite players didn’t play like elite players.”

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Through four uneven outings in six nights, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner are all averaging a point per game. Auston Matthews has two points and has yet to shoot a puck into the net, his only goal coming off a tip.

The core stars haven’t been awful by any means, and Week 1 is much too early to panic, but injuries are mounting, the power-play is meh, and the Leafs’ trademark offence has yet to erupt in a meaningful way.

A 2-2 record is, at best, underwhelming when you consider the four opponents Toronto has faced so far — among which we’re not convinced there is a single playoff-bound team.

What’s more concerning is the lack of jump and execution from a core that swore it was emboldened by another one of general manager Kyle Dubas’s stamps of belief and another refusal to make significant off-season changes.

Same ol’ group, same ol’ hesitancy to put the boots to the NHL’s weak teams.

“We’re disappointed. We didn’t play as well as we’re capable of. Not every night is going to be your best, and you got to find a way to get life into your game,” captain John Tavares said.

Which sounds like a quote you’d hear in the dog days of late January, not on Day 6.

Keefe figured his group’s territorial dominance in the first period actually had a negative effect as it “lulled them to sleep.” Toronto’s third-string goalie, Erik Källgren, didn’t see a puck until after the 10-minute mark. By the time he saw his seventh, two had slipped past him.

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Despite skating without top-line forward Nick Schmaltz and top-pair defenceman Jakob Chychrun, Arizona found a way to clog middle ice, capitalize on special teams, dress the better goalie, and grind out two points that served neither franchise well.

Remember: It wasn’t so long ago these same Maple Leafs waived the Coyotes’ current No. 1 centre (Travis Boyd) and handed Arizona its top scorer (Nick Ritchie) in a salary-dump deal.

It’s no give that talent will triumph.

An ornery home crowd booed the Maple Leafs off the ice as the second-period buzzer sounded, and the players took note.

“It is what it is. I mean, I think we all sensed it,” Rielly said.

“You can tell your fans’ frustration through the game,” Marner added. “Just poor execution. Not good enough at all. Lots of lost battles. A lot of lost footraces to pucks.”

Add injury to an insulting loss.

Jake Muzzin collided with Clayton Keller and departed the game with an injured neck. No update on the severity of his injury was given post-game. Considering the defenceman’s bout with concussions last winter, it’s a frightening sight.

 “That’s probably my best friend on this team,” Marner said. “It’s outside of hockey. It’s way bigger. He’s got two unbelievable daughters, unbelievable wife, and you just wish the very best for him. You have so much to live for in this life with your family and stuff like that, so hopefully everything’s OK with him. And we’re very blessed to have an unbelievable medical staff here that takes care of their players very well and knows what to do. So, I’ll try and check in with him here soon.”

Of course, there is gobs of time for Matthews & Co. to find their groove. Heck, the Leafs tiptoed gently into last October and finished with the best regular season in franchise history.

Restless fans are correct to expect better. Keefe sure does, and he’s pulling whatever strings within reach to summon it.

Expect lineup tweaks Thursday, when Dallas rolls into town. Second-line winger Denis Malgin’s 8:44 ice time in Monday’s loss has a Nick Robertson debut written all over it. And Victor Mete is ready to play if Muzzin cannot.

“This is a game we need to win,” Keefe said, plainly.

OK, sure. But it was a game the Coyotes wanted to win.

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Fox’s Fast 5

• Nick Ritchie’s first 27 games for the Maple Leafs: one goal.

Nick Ritchie’s first 27 games for the Coyotes: 13 goals.

• The Coyotes improved to 10-4-2 all-time at Scotiabank Arena. Among current NHL rinks in which Arizona has played more than once, the team owns its highest points percentage (.688) in Toronto.

• The Maple Leafs took issue when Alexander Kerfoot’s would-be tying goal with 37.7 seconds on the clock was wiped off the board due to a Morgan Rielly hand pass.

In a challenge initiated by the Situation Room, it was deemed that Mitch Marner was the first player to gain possession of the puck after Rielly batted it, even though the puck hit the skate of Arizona’s Clayton Keller.

“I thought he kicked the puck,” Tavares said. “Unfortunately, that didn’t go our way either.”

 • Matthews is tight with Keller. The two train and hang out together in the summer, speak frequently during the season and could be seen catching up post-game between dressing rooms.

Keller leaned on his friend as he rehabbed his way back from major surgery on a broken leg.

“I went through something similar in junior where I broke my femur as well,” Matthews says. “He put in a lot of work this summer. His main goal was to be ready by the start of the season, so I’m happy that he’s back and playing.”

Keller has gained recent praise from coach André Tourigny for his penalty-killing prowess.

“He competes extremely hard, and he’s very smart. Similar to Mitchy [Marner] in a way, where he’s obviously a top offensive guy but just the way he sees the game and anticipates the play, he’s really effective on the on the penalty kill as well,” Matthews observes.

• Thinking of Borje Salming, whose battle with ALS has taken a distressing turn. According to a story in Expressen, Sweden’s national newspaper, the Maple Leafs legend can no longer speak. The 71-year-old is now using an iPad to communicate and being fed through a tube.

“It’s a pain every day to see how bad Borje is,” wife Pia says in the article.

Stay strong, Borje.

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