June 10, 2023
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Sheldon Keefe’s concerns grow as Leafs lose to knockout Sharks in OT

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SAN JOSE – A long car ride is the worst place to lose your bearings.

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But the disoriented Maple Leafs can’t stumble around much longer, especially against teams who should be beating them. They had three days to prepare for the 2-7 Sharks, giving up a poor goal in the first minute, falling behind, rallying and then losing 4-3 in overtime to a goal by Erik Karlsson.

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Neither the lone point nor the long-awaited goals from snakebite-stricken Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner could add a silver lining to Thursday’s loss, their second straight of this five-game journey.

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“Regardless, we didn’t do enough to help this team win,” said Marner. “Good for us, but in this first shift we have to get better.”

Sharks captain Logan Couture put Toronto right on their heels and ended a rush in which he took down Matthews, a falling Justin Holl and then indecisive goaltender Erik Kallgren.

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“Tough start (for Kallgren), ten seconds later, one of their best guys is alone with you,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “San Jose’s best players made life difficult for us. Every time they got on the ice, they tipped it.

“Overall moving the puck forward from our defense, moving to offense…our inability to move the puck now has slowed us down.

“We have to execute. You watch the game and see how many times we don’t fold. We have a lot of really good players, good skills and we don’t connect on passes, tie to tie. We pass it on to the wrong person or hold on to it for too long.

“It starts with defense, their first touch has to be better,” Keefe said.

That has obvious consequences for Toronto’s vaunted offense, though the first line and last year’s No. 1 power play struggled when lined up at the other end.

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Until Marner’s late second-half goal, a 4-on-2 onslaught, and Matthews knocked Kaapo Kahkonen down a bar, the two All-Stars stayed at one each. Matthews leveled the game, but the Sharks cut out William Nylander’s slot pass in overtime and Karlsson was gone alone to cap a three-pointer night at the SAP Center.

“We want to build traction, but we haven’t put a 60-minute game together yet,” Matthews said. “Consistency and momentum shifts are hurting us right now. We want good shifts to build consistency rather than a lot of one-and-dones.”

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Even the single point was in doubt as the Sharks scored on either end of a double minor, Pierre Engvall and TJ Brodie both called on the same shift. Couture scored an unchallenged back door goal with the 5-on-3 space and a few seconds later Timo Meier tapped his shot.

Keefe’s new lines, which saw Alex Kerfoot join Matthews and Marner in a speed-infused group, Engvell reunited with Kampf and Michael Bunting with Calle Jarnkrok and the activated Denis Malgin, had limited success.

It was also the first time the Leafs have lost in the 16 games Kampf have scored since joining the team last year. But team play concerns the hard-working center.

“We’re trying our best, but it’s not coming,” Kampf said. “Hopefully we’re better in the next two games (when the trip ends in Los Angeles and Anaheim). That’s not an excuse, the season has already started so we have to be ready.”

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The Leafs survived a Holl penalty after those two quick power play strikes in San Jose and eventually got some clutch saves from Kallgren.

He started this journey a few days earlier than most expected as Keefe was concerned about the length of the journey and his previous workload could wear down Ilya Samsonov. The No. 1 has also been battling some sort of cold or flu.

That’s how Kallgren came in, hoping to atone for his role in a home loss to another beatable team, Arizona, a week ago on Monday.

“Not our best performance, not my best,” Kallgren said as his save rate dropped to .857. “It sucks. And it sucks that I can’t think of a save (to Karlsson’s winner).”

The Leafs shrugged off Couture’s first goal and played better around the Swede, but the double minor weakened them. Kampf came to a line change for Matthews for his third year after a Kerfoot pass. Marner had the other assist, his 322nd as Leaf and passed Doug Gilmour for ninth in franchise history.

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Mark Giordano deserved credit for tying the Leafs out of the first half and pulling his glove up to deny Karlsson’s open net shot.

Keefe has untested rookie defenseman Filip Kral on the road, but without Jake Muzzin for the immediate future, he really needs Timothy Liljegren as a blueline option. The latter, along with Jordie Benn, began conditioning at the AHL Marlies.

Though Keefe didn’t spare his defense from criticism, he said changing pairs again wasn’t the answer. The Leafs have a practice Friday in LA to try to work things out ahead of their weekend games.

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