Maple Leafs’ Game 1 Win Was Keefe’s Best Coaching Performance

Wow. There is so much to unravel about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals. As Maple Leafs’ fans, was this not the best game we have seen this group play? Sure, they’ve had dominant performances before, but they were all in the regular season, not in the playoffs against the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions.

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There were a lot of stars in this game for the Maple Leafs because every player seemed completely into the game, Kyle Clifford maybe a little too much. Back to him later.  

Of the Maple Leafs’ Stars of the Game, Let’s Not Forget the Coach

While the game’s three stars, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and Jack Campbell, are getting a lot of press for their play, there’s one person we feel deserves a lot of credit for this win. This might have been the best game that Sheldon Keefe has coached for the Maple Leafs.  

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As anyone who watched the game knows, there were a ton of penalties called in this game. Despite all the talk about fewer calls being made in the playoffs, it has been our observation that in the first game or two of the opening round, the referees usually call the games tight, in an effort to send a message to the teams involved.  

Did Keefe Game the Refs?

We wonder if Keefe could have played into that before the series even started. We have to admit surprise when he stated he expected the series to be “Borderline Violent.” It seemed like a strange thing to say. It was speculated in the media that he was sending a message to the Lightning that the Maple Leafs were prepared for a rough physical series.

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We wonder if Keefe’s main goal was to influence how the referees were going to call the games. After hearing the word “violent” being tossed around, they were inevitably going to bend over backward to make sure that didn’t happen. As a result, they were determined to call every infraction they saw. We can see Keefe being completely satisfied for these games to be decided by special teams, and that could have been his intention all along. To make sure the referees called lots of penalties.  

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This is all pure speculation of course. However, if that was Keefe’s plan, it was an ingenious one.  

Did the Maple Leafs’ Line Shakeups Confuse the Lightning?

We’re all aware of Ondrej Kase’s concussion history. Despite what the positive things the Maple Leafs were saying about Kase’s recovery from his last head injury on March 19th, I don’t think any of us expected him to play in the playoffs, let alone start game one.

Ondrej Kase Toronto Maple Leafs
Ondrej Kase, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Then, rather than ease him into the lineup, Keefe puts him on the second line with Tavares and Mikheyev and moves Kerfoot to the first line alongside Matthews and Marner. Of Kerfoot’s close to 1,000 minutes played at five-on-five this season, less than 70 minutes have been alongside Matthews. However, if we look back at training camp, which seems like ages ago, Keefe stated then that he wanted to see how Kerfoot would do alongside Matthews and Marner. 

Then Keefe waited the whole regular season to do so. There’s no way the Lightning’s head coach Jon Cooper could have been prepared for those line matchups.  

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While Keefe has shown a willingness to move his players around, he took it to a new level with these moves. It worked. Kerfoot was a force on the ice in that game despite not figuring into the scoring, and Kase picked up two points.

Usually, following a dominant playoff game like last night’s, we’d expect the coach to come back with exactly the same lineup in the next game. In fact, we’re pretty sure the Lightning will be dissecting video figuring out how to defend against those combinations. Given the way Keefe operates, it wouldn’t surprise us one bit if he came up with a totally different look and completely different line combinations in game two.  

Nice “Mistake” About Kyle Clifford

Of course, no one can predict what will happen in the future. Every choice a person makes will have some unforeseen result, be it positive or negative.  

We were surprised to see Keefe start Kyle Clifford over Jason Spezza. Keefe explained his reasoning for that in his postgame scrum. He acknowledged that it was partially due to the physical aspect of Clifford’s game but then added:

“When I go back and look at our last 20 games and I pull out the games where our fourth line has been the best — and I am talking about playing the game, defending, skating, forechecking — it has been with Kyle Clifford in the lineup. That is the simple thing for me.”

On the surface, it appeared to be a huge mistake. On his second shift of the game, Clifford received a five-minute major and a game misconduct penalty for hitting Ross Colton from behind, into the boards.

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As it was, the five-minute penalty kill was an enormous momentum killer for the Lightning and a tremendous game-changer for the Maple Leafs. Tampa had one shot on the net in the five minutes. It was a bad angle one-timer by Stamkos four and a half minutes into the power play. 

The Lightning had control of the puck in the Toronto zone for less than one of the five minutes, and the Maple Leafs had four odd-man rushes of their own. It actually looked like the Maple Leafs had more players on the ice than the Lightning did.  

That penalty kill set the tone for the whole game.

Will There Be More Changes for the Maple Leafs?

It will be interesting to see if Keefe shakes up the lines further in Game 2. Might we see Michael Bunting make his playoff debut for the Maple Leafs? Will Keefe stay with the same defensive pairings?  

Jake Muzzin played a great game and scored the opening goal. He also led the team with six hits and added three blocked shots in 22:07 of ice time. But, we know he is not 100%. Might Keefe give him a rest in Game 2 and dress Justin Holl in his place? Ilya Lyubushkin only played 10:05 of ice time. Could he sit the next game?

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What will the fourth line look like? Despite taking the bad penalty, it’s obvious Keefe likes the idea of having Clifford in the lineup. Will we see him back in game two? Wayne Simmonds had three hits and was the physical force we expected him to be in the game, yet he only played 5:40. Once Clifford was gone, Keefe pretty much went with 10 forwards for the majority of the game.  

Keefe managed the ice time pretty well between the ten forwards in the game. Marner played the most at 19:16, while Colin Blackwell played the least of the ten forwards with 10:45 of ice time.

What’s Ahead for the Maple Leafs?

For all the excitement this game created and the dominance the Maple Leafs showed, it was just one game. It was just one step. In itself it means nothing if it is not followed up by another equal step and an equal performance by the Maple Leafs’ players.

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This is the first time the Maple Leafs have won the first game of a seven-game series in 18 years. Now the sole focus has to be on winning the next game.  

The Lightning had to be embarrassed by their performance in game one. We expect them to come out determined to make sure it does not happen again. They are the two-time defending champions for a reason.  

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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