Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice

After Sunday’s off day, Sheldon Keefe discussed the letdown of Game 4, the team’s mindset heading out on the road to Boston, the argument on the bench between William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner, and the status of Matthews’ health.

What is your message to the group after the Game 4 loss?

Keefe: It is just about recognizing where we are at here. We are in here today recovering and meeting because we are still alive in this series. We have an opportunity now where the schedule has given us a couple of days — a recovery day, a chance to discuss some things, and a practice day tomorrow before we get out on the road in a building where we won the last time we were there.

There are reasons for optimism. We are trying to make sure the players are aware and it is front of mind. We have to recognize what is ahead and how difficult it is going to be, but at the same time, know that we are preparing to win one hockey game.

What has to change to get your game back on track?

Keefe: Special teams are the biggest thing, right? There is one area that really stood out last night. Our power play had a chance to really get us going in that first period. It failed to do so. That was the most disappointing part of the game—the urgency level wasn’t higher at that particular time. That is a big one.

This series and these games that we have been in are far closer than it may appear. We need little things to shift over into our favour, starting with special teams, whether we are one finished chance away or one extra save away. The one game we won in this series was the game in which we scored a power-play goal at an important time and got a penalty kill at an important time. We need something like that to shift in our favour. One fewer mistake and one more positive puck going the other way.

That is how close it is. Even last night, we were not performing well as a team at all. When we gave up the goal in the first period, the shots were 5-3 for us at that time. We had given up three shots in the first period. It is a lot closer than it appears. We just need to get things to move over onto our side of the ledger.

Are you looking for a different level of urgency and desperation? 

Keefe: If you have to talk about urgency and desperation at this time of year, you are in trouble. Last night, on our first power play, to me, it was the most disappointing area of the game in that sense — urgency and such — but otherwise, we have played hard and competed. Last night was not a great night for us, but we got 50 hits again in the game, and we only gave up 22 shots. You don’t do those things unless you are defending with some urgency and competing. I think we have been good in that regard.

It is less about recognizing you are facing elimination and more about looking at it as an opportunity to go in on the road, give ourselves some life in the series, and bring it back home for a chance to get it right.

Has there been any improvement in how Auston Matthews is feeling?

Keefe: Not much update there. Luckily, we have a couple of days here. We thought the last couple of days would help us. For whatever reason, it is not one of those everyday, run-of-the-mill illnesses that come and go. It has lingered. The effects have lingered and gotten worse when he gets on the ice and asserts himself. We have to manage that and give him the time that he needs. We are hopeful that it will turn.

Are you considering changes to the top power-play unit?

Keefe: Last night, we made changes to the top power-play unit, and it got worse, not better. We will consider and talk about everything. We have time on our side in that sense. Today is less about such discussions and more about diagnosing some of the things that have been problematic while looking at some of the things that have gone well for us in the series and how we can continue to embrace and build upon those. Tomorrow, we will start to have discussions about the lineup and things like that.

The argument on the bench last night—do you consider it divisive, or is it something that might bring your team closer together? How do you view it the day after?

Keefe: I see it as something that happens when things aren’t going well. In the past, that wouldn’t have happened. Guys wouldn’t have talked—if you want to call it argue—it out. I look at it as progress. Those guys care. I don’t look at it as frustration. I look at it as the guys being upset and pissed off that they didn’t deliver for the team. They are pushing and challenging each other to get it right.

The better thing for me is the remainder of the game and the next opportunities we had at 6-on-5 and those types of things. They were working together, talking about it, making a plan, and talking in the intermissions.

These guys have been together for a long time. They are pushing and challenging each other to get it right. They know how important they are to the team. When they are not delivering, they recognize it. I don’t look at it as much more than that. Quite honestly, it is not the first time it has happened.

Is it something you feel you need to address in the moment, or is it something you leave for the players to take care of?

Keefe: Quite honestly, I was at the other end of the bench when it occurred. I don’t look at it as a big deal. I think it is important that those guys work through some things and figure it out.

They have great responsibility for our team and to our team. They take it very seriously. They are going to work together to find their way. That work together is really important not just for them but the remainder of our group. We all have to pull together. It is going to take that type of team effort to help us work our way through this.

What gives you the confidence that the team can push back? What has stood out about your team’s ability in that area throughout the year? 

Keefe: It is our ability as a team. We have a good team here. This series and games are a lot closer than it may appear. Last time we went to Boston, we were able to pull out a very good and important win. Throughout the season, we have responded well, particularly on the road.

For those reasons, we have to keep the focus narrow and control what we can control. Today is a good recovery day where we can get our minds right. We will get to work tomorrow and then head out to Boston.

What was your sense of William Nylander’s game coming off of his absence? How much room does he have to grow into the series?

Keefe: It was good for him to get the game. I thought he got better as it wore on. He looked like a guy who is definitely adjusting to the series and what is required for success. Some of the things he was looking to do are not available. This team defends very well, and he needs to adapt to the series. He will.

We talked to him about it. He was in our meetings during the series. It is another thing to get out there and execute. Willy is a guy who knows he can make a difference and wants to make a difference. He will make adjustments going into the next game that will help him.