Sheldon and his Leafs light it up again in OT win
BarnBurner Sports Writer
Sunday, December 1, 2019
TORONTO. – Sheldon Keefe could have never wished for a more energetic and rewarding start to his NHL coaching career. His Leafs have won 4 of his five games as the head coach but even more impressing is that they gave him a win in his first games both home and away.
What seems to be the formula for this sudden mid season resurrection so close to the Christmas break by the Leafs is beyond explanation but it’s a welcomed change for Leaf Nation.
The game once again was stolen by the awesome play of Freddy Andersen, who gave the Scotiabank arena audience of 19,250, a goaltending clinic. He stopped a total of 29 shots and kept it scoreless through the first two periods of play.
While there was no lavish introduction of the new skipper on the evening, everyone present was looking towards the Leafs bench to look at the demeaner of the new coach during tense moments. There was a reasonably strong effort by his charges to get the Maple Leafs back in the win column.
Andersen started in net in the back end of a back-and-back series, breaking the trend from the recently fired Mike Babcock of starting Andersen in the first game of the sequence.
"It was a little different because we didn't have a skate yesterday because of the early game," Andersen said of the change. "I was able to skate a little this morning and obviously, we had more of a relaxed morning."
“Nice to have a guy capable of that,” said Keefe, whose team lost the only game Andersen didn’t start for him, Friday in Buffalo. “You’re going to need that at certain times, and it gives is confidence. It wasn’t the prettiest at times, but we found a way to get two points.”
The Leafs also won the second of back-to-back games for the first time this season, Keefe switching the rotation with Michael Hutchinson opening and Andersen closing.
“We’ve talked a little bit about how to do this scenario,” said Andersen, who seemed leery of not starting the first game. “We have a middleman in our goalie coach (Steve Briere), a little buffer there. But we talked to Sheldon as well and thought we’d try to do it this time. We started out great yesterday (Hutchinson struggled later in the 6-4 loss). It would’ve been nice to get all four points, but I’ll take two.
“When you’re seeing the puck well, you get in good position and that leads to a few more saves when you’re out of position. That’s the key to my game to track the puck around.”
Another back-to-back debate looms next week, with Toronto playing in Philadelphia on Tuesday and home again to face Nazem Kadri and the Avalanche on Wednesday.
"He gave us a chance to win, especially in the third period, where we had to defend" Toronto Maple Leafs forward John Tavares said. "He made some big saves, even at the end of the second (period), too. That's why he's one of the best goalies in the league."
William Nylander scored on a power play, with Auston Matthews assisting, and though the latter has just one point the past three games he nearly had the winner in the final seconds of regulation when he went five-hole on Hutton and Marco Scandella swept it off the goal line.
For Nylander, his 10th goal came almost a year to the day he ended his damaging contract spat with the club, returning to double figures for the first time since 2017-18.
"It was a little lucky and it deflected between his arm and in," Nylander said of his goal. "It was nice to get one on the power play, that's for sure."
Buffalo found the equalizer in the third. Rasmus Ristolainen scored his second goal after he saw a clear path to the net while trying to find a player open. He cut across the net and beat Andersen blocker side at 6:58.
"I thought the guys put that away really well and really deserved more than a point here when I look at the third period," Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger said. "So really proud of the effort of the guys just digging it really deep and extremely disappointed with the final result.
With his parents leading a clan gathering of Keefe Nation, the new coach improved to 4-1 with a difficult home-and-home split with the Sabres.
“Nice to have family here,” said Keefe. “It wasn’t the greatest game at times, but we found a way to get the two points.”
Though he had coached the Marlies on occasion from the Leafs bench at the arena before, Keefe came away thrilled to have done it as Leafs coach for the first time.
“I’ve been in this environment before (the farm team Marlies play a few times at SBA), but never quite like this, so full, as much emotion and energy,” Keefe said. “I’m hoping it’s better from here.”
Leafs minority owner Larry Tanenbaum greeted Keefe’s family outside the dressing room at one point. That’s Keefe’s parents, wife, kids, a sister, a niece and nephew. He wasn’t sure how many, really, had come for the game. “Seeing them and having them be a part of it, and you just see how much it impacts them as well,” said Keefe. “That’s a big part of it. I’m kind of stuck in a bubble here, doing my work and doing my thing and you kind of lose track of some of the other stuff. But you know there’s a lot been going on, and the family part is something that is important to not lose sight of.”