Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Keefe, Campbell, Matthews & Bunting

Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe was watching the same game I was watching. After the game, he addressed the media; and, although his team had just lost a  3-2 overtime game to the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers, he seemed pretty upbeat. I agreed with his optimism. There were times during the first and third periods of last night’s game when, no lie, I just kept saying to myself – “This team (the Maple Leafs) sure plays good hockey.”

Then, during the second period, I thought “If these teams ever meet in a postseason playoff series, it’s going to be a good one.” To my eyes, and perhaps I haven’t watched the Colorado Avalanche or even the Carolina Hurricanes enough, I think these are two of the best teams in the NHL. It was a good game. Back and forth, good action, skilled players attacking and recovering, and good goalies making good stops – both ways.

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In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at the game, some of the play, and the results with a sense of what it means for the season. When the game concluded, the team’s record had dropped to 51-21-7 on the season; but, it was cause for optimism for Maple Leafs’ fans. 

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This team can hang in there with anyone – even after the odd 8-1 loss. The Maple Leafs proved their bad play to be more an aberration than the rule.

Item One: Head Coach Sheldon Keefe Was Happy with His Team

Specifically, after the game in his media scrum, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe noted that he “thought our guys played hard tonight and very easily could have won the game.” 

Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He went on to articulate that he thought the team “won the first and third periods, especially.” And, he admitted that the Panthers “won the second period — not just in the scoring, but they also carried the play.”

During the first and last periods of the game his own team “had tons of opportunities.” However, he noted that his own team has to score more than two goals to beat such a high-powered offense. Still, he thought his own Maple Leafs’ team “had more than enough looks to have four or five.”

Item Two: Auston Matthews’ Injury Was Obviously Not Serious

Auston Matthews had missed three games in a row with an “undisclosed” injury. Obviously, at this point in the season, all that means is that the team just wasn’t going to say much about it. From an assessment of the game action last night, Maple Leafs’ fans have to think that part of that decision was load management. 

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Matthews returned to the Maple Leafs’ lineup last night and didn’t miss a beat. Although Matthews neither scored his 59th goal last night nor even registered a point in the game, he was his usual dominating self. When Michael Bunting took an errant puck to his face and had to leave the game (word is that he’ll miss some time), William Nylander jumped up to play with the first line; and, that threesome of Matthews, Nylander, and Mitch Marner, looked good.

In more about Bunting, he didn’t return in last night’s game; and, the Maple Leafs didn’t give specifics about the injury. We do know that he was hit in the face with the puck during the first half of the game and left the ice. He’s probably day-to-day; however, I can’t imagine him playing tonight. It will probably give coach Keefe a look at another young forward.

Matthews played a strong game. He simply wasn’t able to score. Again coach Keefe noted that Matthews matched up against the Panthers’ great Aleksander Barkov and won lots of the battles. On the night, Matthews once again played over 20 minutes in the game (21:40 to be specific) and had seven shots on the net. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Right now, he’s sitting with 58 goals and 43 assists (for 101 points) in 70 games on the season. There’s a good chance he’ll become the third player since the salary cap was introduced in 2005 to score 60 goals in one season. Who’d bet against him?

Item Three: Jack Campbell Was in Good Form

Jack Campbell didn’t win the game; but, he played well enough to win. He let in three goals on 38 shots in the loss to the Panthers. In fact, to show how close the game was, both goalies faced 38 shots during the game. Panthers’ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was just as good on the night as Campbell was. 

Related: 7 Cool Facts About Maple Leafs’ Goalie Jack Campbell

Last night was Campbell’s third strong game in succession. In each of those games, he’s only given up two goals in regulation. Again coach Keefe put Campbell’s play in perspective when he noted to the media that Campbell “looks like he is back to playing the way that he was early in the season. He is rolling really well. It has been great to see.” 

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Keefe also admitted that the team had managed his workload a little bit. However, that doesn’t mean Campbell is injured. In fact, the report is that he’s back to full strength. To me, after struggling during the middle of the season, Campbell looks like the goalie who was named an All-Star earlier in the season.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Last night’s game looked like a playoff game, and the team goes back at it tonight against the Washington Capitals. It might be a bit of a revenge game because the Maple Leafs beat the Capitals 7-3 on home ice the last time the two clubs met just 10 days ago.

Last night, with the Bunting injury, the lines seemed in a blender. It will be interesting to see if coach Keefe jumps Nylander up to the top six. Erik Kallgren will start again in the back-to-back; and, it would be good to see how both teams respond to where they are in the season.

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Last night, the Maple Leafs played well enough to win the game. Can they keep up that effort tonight against the Capitals? Fans might want to look for a physical game.