Sheldon Keefe’s tone when he spoke to media on Friday was a far cry from the one he had less than 24 hours prior.
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The Toronto Maple Leafs head coach wore a blank expression with little to say in a very brief post-game press conference after his team’s 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on Thursday in Game 2 of their second-round playoff series.
With Toronto staring at an 0-2 deficit going on the road for the next two games, Keefe said his team isn’t lacking confidence in making it a series when the teams meet for Game 3 on Sunday.
“Certainly don’t have any doubts in our group,” he told reporters via Zoom. “Obviously there’s things that we need to do better and would’ve liked to have handled better in the two games that we played here but those are in the past.
“We’ve got an opportunity to go out on the road where we’re comfortable and became comfortable and confident based on the results of our last series. That said, it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Toronto dropped the series opener 4-2, surrendering two goals after tying the game at 2-2.
In Game 2, the Leafs opened with an early 2-0 lead and took a one-goal edge into the second period. But two goals across a 47-second span early in the middle frame allowed the Panthers to go ahead, and Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky continuously turned away Toronto’s tying chances.
The Leafs are now 1-4 at home in the post-season and 3-0 on the road.
“Wish I had the answer for it. I think if we did, we’d be in a better position,” said forward Ryan O’Reilly on Thursday when asked about the team’s home performances. “I think we’re all obviously disappointed ? to be down 2-0 is not what we want.
“It’s a long series, there’s a lot of hockey left and we have to keep building our game (and get) better as we go. I’m not worried.”
Toronto opened its first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning with a 7-3 loss before roaring back with three consecutive victories and eventually winning in six games. Three of those wins came on the road in overtime.
Keefe says those battles have helped shape the team’s hardened approach to adversity.
“Our group has been resilient. We saw that hardness that you’re referring to in the last series,” Keefe said. “When we’re down in games, the guys stay with it and keep going and find a way.
“I think it would be a very similar type of mindset and approach.”
The Panthers have found their stride behind Bobrovsky’s efforts and a strong forecheck. The two-time Vezina Trophy winner regained his starting job in Game 4 of their first-round series win over the Boston Bruins, after losing it late in the regular season.
Following a loss in that Game 4, Bobrovsky has led Florida to five straight wins.
“Well there’s always more that we could do, for sure,” Keefe said. “Whether there’s shots in traffic and such to be able to make life harder on him that way (and) continue to do that.
“We have had (a) significant amount of very clean looks where it’s just shooter against goaltender here, far more than we had in the previous series. So we’ve got to find ways to make good on those as well.”
As for the Panthers’ forecheck, Keefe admitted it has caused issues for the Leafs, particularly in Game 2.
“They’re one of the premier forechecking teams in the NHL in the regular season (and) that’s carried forward into the playoffs,” he said. “ ? The nature of some of our turnovers yesterday put us in some real bad spots and that was what was disappointing because that’s what we’ve been really seeking to avoid, is those big mistakes.
“Florida, with the way that they’re playing and how they forecheck and how they transition, perhaps more importantly, when they get the puck back, it makes it that much more dangerous.”
The Panthers are 5-1 on the road and carry a 1-2 record at home this post-season.
Although ready to feel the energy of their home crowd, head coach Paul Maurice said the feeling among the team wasn’t “rich and royal.”
“At no point in our last nine games have we felt that we’ve dominated the game, where if we just play our game, we should win,” he told reporters Friday via Zoom. “So even with the win, we won’t walk away from the rink last night and say, ”Man, we really handed it to those guys.’
“We just scratch and claw.”
The Leafs will have to do the same to keep their post-season run alive.
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