It was the start of a new era on Thursday night when the Toronto Maple Leafs took on the Arizona Coyotes in Arizona. Mike Babcock’s tenure as the Maple Leafs coach was officially over and the team started down a new path with their new head coach – Sheldon Keefe.
While it was an important game for Keefe – who was looking to change the culture around the team – it was also an extremely important game for the team who was looking for a win following a six-game losing streak that pushed them outside the playoff picture.
If first impressions mean anything, the team’s performance on Thursday was one the Maple Leafs and their fans should be happy with as they skated away with a 3-1 win, playing a dominant game for the majority of the night.
With that, here’s what we took away from Keefe’s first win as an NHL head coach.
Barrie’s New Found Confidence
It wasn’t long ago that there were reports that Tyson Barrie’s stint in Toronto could be short-lived. The 28-year-old had just seven assists through 23 games and just didn’t seem to have the confidence of Coach Babcock – nor did he seem happy with his play or usage.
But confidence is everything. Enter Keefe. In his first game behind the bench, Keefe seemed to give his defence corps the green light to make plays and Barrie took advantage – opening the scoring and tallying his first goal as a member of the Maple Leafs.
Barrie’s play seemed to take off after the goal and he played with more confidence than he had all season – making breakout passes and skating the puck out of his own zone. And the team seemed to capitalize on this new found confidence under Keefe – even the younger players seemed to get their legs under them a bit more.
Same Face in a Different Place
While Babcock might not have been all that familiar with young Pierre Engvall when the Maple Leafs called him up for his first NHL game in Las Vegas, Keefe knew just what Engvall had to offer the team as he had coached him during his Marlies’ tenure.
With that, Keefe played Engvall in situations that Babcock may have never considered in his second game with the big club. He saw a boost in ice-time and even got a chance to play on the team’s penalty kill – something he was familiar with while with the Marlies.
Like Barrie, Engvall recorded his first goal with the Maple Leafs and his first career NHL goal on the penalty kill when he picked off a pass in the neutral zone and skated in on a breakaway. Engvall became just the fourth Maple Leafs’ player in franchise history to record his first career goal shorthanded and is the first to do so since Wally Boyer did it on Dec. 11, 1965.
Playing A Man Down
Speaking of the Maple Leafs penalty kill, the team – which ranked 27th in the league heading into Thursday’s contest – killed all three of the Coyotes power plays in their first contest under Keefe. While the first one didn’t start off pretty – with a mini two-on-oh in front of Frederik Andersen – the Maple Leafs did rally to come out unscathed on all three opportunities.
Engvall’s shorthanded tally just added to the impressiveness of the team’s penalty kill in this contest – something the team and Keefe will certainly be looking to build off of as the season continues.
Andersen Deserved Better
One of their best penalty killers was Andersen in net. While he stopped 30 of 31 shots on Thursday night, six of those shots came on the Coyotes’ power play opportunities and Andersen shut the door on each one of them.
While most of what the Maple Leafs did in this game was good, it is worth noting that the team did begin to slack a little bit defensively in their own end as the game was closing out – leading to the Coyotes’ goal with just 17 seconds left in the game.
While he still earned the win, Andersen played good enough that he deserved the shutout. However, a simple lapse in defensive coverage and with the defence not moving their feet, the Coyotes and Vinnie Hinostroza were able to capitalize and ruin the shutout for the Maple Leafs goaltender.
Another New Beginning for Spezza
While coming to Toronto was a fresh start for the aging Jason Spezza, he wasn’t exactly in the good books under Babcock – at least it seemed that way early in the season. Spezza was a healthy scratch on opening night against his former club and speculation swirled from that point on.
That said, like others on the team, Spezza seemed different on Thursday night – playing with an extra step in his skating and making some key plays defensively throughout the contest. While he didn’t get on the scoresheet, he did win 75 percent of his draws and played just under 14 minutes – a number he hasn’t seen much this season.
On top of that, Spezza was moved back to center on the third line and with five points in his last six games, this could be yet another fresh start for the 36-year-old who is just looking to contribute something to the young Maple Leafs lineup.
Also Worth Noting…
The Maple Leafs were buzzing early and it showed in the giveaways department. While they were making crisp passes and had just four giveaways all night, the Coyotes had 13 which certainly didn’t help their case in the loss.
Speaking of buzzing, Ilya Mikheyev led all Maple Leafs forwards in ice-time and it paid off. He played nearly 19 minutes, including nearly three minutes on the penalty kill, and finished the game with two assists. That brings his rookie season point total to 14 points in 24 games – all of which are at even strength.
Nick Shore was the odd man out on Thursday, sitting as a healthy scratch after starting in 18 straight games for the Babcock version of the Maple Leafs. Keefe decided to start Nic Petan and Engvall over the veteran Shore and so far, so good.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.