Keefe’s faith in team validated for now, as Leafs set table for Sweden

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Sheldon Keefe was a voice in the wilderness all last week, insisting to anyone who’d listen that his troubled Maple Leafs were on the road to improvement.

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At times his words carried a hint of desperation – with good reason. Whereas previous slow starts in his Toronto bench tenure came down to his best players underperforming, the Core Four were at full speed, supplying the bulk of offence. It was the rest of the roster letting the side down, namely the Inferior Four, whose arrival was trumpeted in the off-season; John Klingberg, Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Ryan Reaves, all struggling.

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If a record of 6-5-2 before the weekend was to be as good as it gets from the new crew, the bottom six forwards, a depth-challenged defence beset by injuries and average goaltending then alarm bells were right to ring. And Keefe, despite having his contract extended by new general manager Brad Treliving, was being pushed towards shaky ground.

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The Leafs aren’t yet out of the woods, but they are off to Sweden for two games having validated much of Keefe’s faith with back-to-back victories. Saturday was the most impressive, galvanizing in a rough and tumble 5-2 win that cooled off one of the NHL’s hottest teams, the Vancouver Canucks. The third and fourth lines provided goals, while Klingberg and Samsonov came back after a night of reflection to elevate their efforts. The Leafs ended a five-game homestand with a record of 3-2, tied for second with Detroit in the Atlantic division before the Panthers and Canadiens played in separate cities Sunday.

“I thought this was the perfect way, the perfect moment to end this homestand,” a relieved Keefe said. “Through all this, I’ve been trying to communicate we’re trending in the right direction. It hasn’t always looked that way, but inside these walls and from the coaches’ perspective we’ve looked at a lot of (positives).

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“Five-on-five tonight, we gave up very little. Almost every game, it’s like we’re setting a new standard for our play defensively. That’s about four games now where 5-on-5 we’re right up there with the best teams in the league, defensively.

“On this homestand, the results weren’t always there, but we stayed with it. This morning, we talked about the good things we did (despite blowing a three-goal lead Friday to Calgary).”

In that 5-4 shootout win over the Flames, it was the third line of Domi between Calle Jarnkrok and Nick Robertson that shone. Saturday, with Bobby McMann up from the farm to replace the disoriented Reaves on the fourth line, he assisted on goals by Noah Gregor and David Kampf. In both games, Bertuzzi has been more of a contributor to William Nylander and John Tavares, who continue to keep pace with top unit strikers Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

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“Secondary scoring is huge, tonight it allowed our lead to grow,” Keefe said. “Some nights the top guys aren’t going to have it. But the nicest thing is since Domi got in the middle of that third line (coming off a dry spell on left wing and making Kampf a pure checking centre), it’s really come along. But through all this, the issue has been keeping the puck out of our net.”

Jake McCabe’s weekend return from a groin injury helped there, while Keefe got mileage from fifth and sixth defenders William Lagesson and Simon Benoit, a stay-at-home pairing. Klingberg returned in Benoit’s spot Saturday.

There were suspicions Klingberg was suffering from no more than a bruised ego rather than the vague “injuries” that Keefe said had a role in Friday’s scratch. But the Swede was certainly better against the Canucks in his 19 minutes of work, despite getting no shots on goal.

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“He gave us a lot of positive plays on the breakout, distributing the puck and he was calm under pressure,” Keefe noted.

Saturday’s result ended a franchise-worst run of allowing four or more goals at home for eight straight games to start a season.

“Sometimes you get rattled the way things are going, when numbers aren’t looking too good,” said defenceman Mark Giordano after his Saturday night as a game star included a first-period fight. “It was a big team effort against one that came in here absolutely rolling. We did a great job.”

The gaudy wrestler’s belt the players award to their game MVP was in Samsonov’s stall.

“Ilya was solid,” Keefe said. “He gave up a couple in the first period (on the power play) which can get in your head, but he didn’t allow it to. And I thought the guys took really good care of him.”

All the Leafs will likely sleep more peacefully on their Monday overnight flight to Stockholm to meet the Red Wings and Minnesota Wild.

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