March 22, 2023
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The terrifying end of a road trip pressures the Leafs to head home

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ANAHEIM – Those boos in the ears of the Maple Leafs have nothing to do with Halloween.

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But all the bats in their belfry in this persistently slow start could be chasing coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas as the team limps home after a four-game losing streak.

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It was capped in monstrous fashion on Sunday, a 4-3 loss in overtime to the Anaheim Ducks, who had gone seven straight non-wins, a game Toronto led all night, 3-1 at one point with one Chance of a penalty to extend it.

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Add that meltdown to previous losses to smaller lights Arizona, Montreal and this trip San Jose and Los Angeles and there are further doubts about this new look squad Dubas has created and Keefe is trying to tame.

Dubas was asked for interviews by various Toronto media after the game, but declined. After a 10-day absence, the Leafs have a time-out, practice Tuesday and an improved Philadelphia Flyers Club visiting Wednesday.

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Outside of the Scotiabank Arena, expect little support or sympathy for the GM and coach, who needed a good start this month to erase memories of another spring playoff loss.

“We’re used to dealing with noise,” Keefe said with a shrug at the rough reception that awaited us.

On his own fate as casualties mount, he added: “I just want to focus on what I can do here. I have a job to do with the group and the group has responded in the past.”

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But the Leafs seem too fixated on simply repeating what happened a year ago when they won just two of their first seven and then took off to 115 points. Sunday’s setback dropped them to 4-4-2 and this is a new side that may or may not consolidate.

“I still think[the confidence]is very high,” assistant captain Mitch Marner said while taking the blame for a few puck decisions that the Ducks were able to capitalize on. “We started a lot worse last year and everyone tried to put a shambles in our heads. It’s noise from outside, it’s big in Toronto. That’s not going to happen to us.”

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Trevor Zegra’s second goal of the game defeated Erik Kallgren at 2:15 of overtime after Marner was stopped just before deking at John Gibson’s doorstep. What would have been Anaheim’s green goal in regulation was waved off for keeper interference, but the Leafs had plenty of chances to hold their own in regulation, as did Marner and Auston Matthews in OT.

Toronto’s standards certainly slipped when playing a 1-6-1 team can be called a “must-win,” but the result didn’t discourage Keefe and Dubas.

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The Leafs are still struggling to score and integrate new cast members, although two of them, Denis Malgin and Calle Jarnkrok, scored on Sunday.

The Leafs just couldn’t let a good, sustained effort go by without inflicting a wound on themselves. One was committed by Filip Kral in his second NHL game and was looking good until he attempted to play a pass through Derek Grant down the middle as the middle half ended.

It required Kallgren to make a breakaway save and Matthews to take a sharp call. Toronto converted this into its first short-handed strike of the year, a stretch pass from TJ Brodie that Alex Kerfoot and Jarnkrok converted.

In the third period, Kerfoot had a breakaway that was obstructed enough to warrant a penalty shot, but couldn’t find a place on Gibson as he came too close and shot wide.

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Moments later, Zegras didn’t miss his break against Kallgren. The Leafs went with their No. 2 goalie, who, like Ilya Samsonov in Los Angeles the afternoon before, had to endure crucial errors from his buddies.

Anaheim equalized 3-3 when defenseman Dmitry Kulikov slipped the puck past John Tavares, circled the net and defeated Kallgren in a sweep.

The Leafs have scored just nine goals in their last four losses.

“All losses suck,” Keefe said of the way they gambled away Sunday’s lead. “In the second period we looked a lot more like we can be. We were fighting on our own end then you have a lot of tired people on the ice who can’t get off and it’s snowing. A huge shorthanded goal to start the third then you give them life back.

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William Nylander and Marner set up Matthews for a quick streak at 4:23, scoring two goals on the trip.

The revised second row of Kerfoot, Tavares and Jarnkrok thought they’d scored moments later, Kerfoot half-raising his racquet but the puck slipped past the empty net. When Kerfoot looked skyward, Jakob Silfverberg conceded at the other end.

Toronto retook the lead before the period ended thanks to another ad hoc line, Nick Robertson and Nylander setting up Malgin, who switched to right flank while Nylander switched to center.

“Last year we didn’t have a great start, that’s not what we’re looking for this year,” Tavares said between the LA and Anaheim games. “We had a chance to win every game. Have we exhausted our abilities yet? I do not think so.”

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