Sheldon Keefe’s two-year anniversary as Maple Leafs head coach turned out to be a dud.
And despite his team’s strong response after a tough start to the schedule, he’ll have plenty to contemplate as Toronto hits the road.
Tristan Jarry made 26 saves for his second straight shutout as the Pittsburgh Penguins picked up a 2-0 victory Saturday to snap the Leafs’ five-game winning streak.
Jake Guentzel and Jeff Carter scored for Pittsburgh (7-6-4).
Jack Campbell stopped 29 shots for Toronto (12-6-1), which had won 10 of its last 11.
“We competed hard,” said the Leafs netminder. “Pittsburgh’s a good team, they’re quick.
“We played our game pretty well.”
The Leafs suited up for their NHL-high 13th home date of the season, and will head out of town for six of the next seven beginning Sunday in the New York Islanders’ shiny new UBS Arena before a swing through California.
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While the Leafs have been pocketing plenty of victories following a 2-4-1 start thanks to strong special teams, commitment to defensive structure and Campbell’s outstanding form, offence at 5-on-5 continues to be a challenge with 30 goals in 19 outings.
“We’ve been finding ways to win … but it’s top of mind,” said Keefe, who replaced the fired Mike Babcock as head coach on Nov. 19, 2019. “We’re talking about it a lot, not just tonight.
“It’s something we’re certainly aware of.”
Leafs winger Mitch Marner said a troubling trend of not making life difficult for the opposition netminder continued.
‘We do give a lot of goalies these free nights’
“We do give a lot of goalies these free nights,” he said. “Not having enough people around [the net], and then also second opportunities — something that we do talk about a lot.
“We just need to really bear down.”
Toronto’s red-hot power play, which had scored 10 goals over the past 10 games, couldn’t get anything going, including a late 5-on-3 that lasted nearly two minutes.
“Just like how we lost to a good team, we lost to a good penalty kill,” Keefe said. “They were just flat out better than us.”
‘It’s nice to be playing games’
The Penguins, who have dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak and a number of key injuries, including to star centres Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, won consecutive games for the first time in 2021-22 on the heels of Thursday’s 6-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
“I feel pretty good,” said Crosby, who dressed for just the fifth time thanks to off-season wrist surgery and a positive COVID-19 test. “You sit around for 10 days … it’s nice to be playing games.
“With each game I’ve felt better and better.”
Jarry, meanwhile, continued a string of strong performances to extend his shutout streak to 151 minutes and six seconds.
Toronto suffered its worst defeat of the season Oct. 23 in Pittsburgh — a 7-1 demolition by the severely undermanned Penguins. But the under-fire club responded with a better effort two nights later in Carolina despite falling 4-1 to the Hurricanes to set the stage for that run of 10 victories in 11 games.
After Marner rang a shot off Jarry’s crossbar Saturday, the visitors opened the scoring at 5:46 of the first period. Guentzel moved into the slot off the rush, stepped past Toronto defenceman Rasmus Sandin and then backhanded his seventh goal of the season past Campbell.
Given another chance on the Leafs’ top line despite registering just two assists in 18 games, Nick Ritchie came close to bagging his first later in the period off a slick Marner feed, but Jarry was there to close the door.
Pittsburgh then made it 2-0 at 17:15 on a goal that seemed to materialize out of nothing.
Former Toronto winger Kasperi Kapanen — playing his first game in Toronto since being dealt back to the Penguins in August 2020 — chipped the puck into the offensive zone from centre. Jason Zucker outraced Leafs blue-liner Justin Holl and slid a pass in front to Carter, who got the better of Jake Muzzin to tap home his fourth.
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While the defeats to Pittsburgh were vastly different, Keefe saw a common thread in how the goals were surrendered Saturday and in the blowout loss that had Toronto’s fan base reeling a month ago.
“Handling their speed coming through the neutral zone was a problem for us there, it was a problem for us again,” he said. “Then they just defend real hard and make it tough on you.
“We got what we deserved in terms of our offence, because we just didn’t make enough happen.”
The home side got an opportunity with the man advantage midway the second, but William Nylander found iron on the Leafs’ best chance.
Campbell, the NHL’s leader in save percentage and goals-against average, kept the deficit at 2-0 late in the period when he made a nice stop on Guentzel.
The Leafs goaltender had to be sharp again on two chances for Brock McGinn early in the third before Pierre Engvall made it a trio of Toronto shots off iron at the other end.
Keefe made some subtle tweaks to his lines as the game wore on, but felt the combinations weren’t the problem.
‘Pittsburgh Penguins were an issue’
“The Pittsburgh Penguins were an issue, and I can’t control that,” he said. “We had to just play through difficult circumstances and find ways to get to the net.
“We just weren’t able to do that.”
After Campbell denied Kapanen on another good chance, the Leafs got their second power play, but couldn’t get anything going.
But Toronto could once again not find a way past Jarry, who was bailed out by another crossbar on a Nylander effort before the Penguins coasted the rest of the way to pick up their second straight win.
“It’s been a while since we had a night like this,” said Keefe, who dropped to 74-35-13 in parts of three seasons behind Toronto’s bench. “It didn’t go our way. It’s not going to get easier.
“This one here certainly gets everybody’s attention.”
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