Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had been doing so well.
Bright-eyed and positive through the first three games of the playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Occasionally, he was even funny.
The players play on the ice and the coach keeps things light everywhere else. That’s how it works for winning teams.
But after the Leafs pulled their fainting-goat routine on Sunday night in Tampa, losing 7-3 to the Lightning, Keefe also decided to steer into the skid.
What’s the correct coaching response to your team allowing three goals in the first eight minutes of a game? You blame yourself.
You didn’t play in net, but you screwed up somehow, ipso facto. If the players could figure out how to organize themselves, they wouldn’t need to pay you so much, would they?
This is where you go out with your metaphoric sword – use a chair leg if you have to – and repeatedly launch yourself on top of it.
Instead, Keefe decided the best way to tamp down the growing panic was to go all prickly pear.
He congratulated Tampa on being “really good” – no way to plan for that happening, I guess.
He was asked a question about starting his “worst defenceman” (Justin Holl).
If you take the job in Toronto, you should not be taken aback when a reporter punches you in the nose after a gruesome loss. Keefe was taken aback.
He could’ve ignored the provocation and dealt with the substance of the question – because it was fair to ask. A Holl giveaway helped create the first Tampa goal.
Keefe could’ve defended Holl’s honour. He could’ve said everyone was bad tonight, including himself. He could’ve judo-flipped the tone back to positive by saying something about night-to-night swings in a great series and we’ll get ‘em next time. He could’ve done about a dozen things that wouldn’t have made getting your doors blown off better, but it wouldn’t have made it any worse.
Instead, Keefe decided to make it worse: “That’s your opinion, I guess.”
He may have expected someone to laugh. No one did.
Keefe’s been the Leafs boss during two failed playoff runs. He should understand by now how these things go wrong.
It’s not one big disaster in Game 7. It’s a series of small mistakes that set the stage for the big disaster. One of those mistakes is stirring up the local shark population.
Yet somehow, Keefe still doesn’t get that losing your cool in front of a camera – even just a little – is the equivalent of dumping blood in the water.
Some other coaches in some other cities can get away with it because they’ve got a big enough boat. Keefe, coach of the cursed Toronto Maple Leafs, is out there in an inflatable raft.
The next question was about the starting line in general. Keefe rolled his eyes as it was being asked.
And that’s when you knew that the new and improved, not-going-to-sweat-the-small-stuff Maple Leafs have exited this series. Welcome back to the old, familiar, white-knuckling, flop-sweating Maple Leafs. How was your year off? Go anywhere fun?
This is how things get going the wrong way in a hurry. A couple of nights ago, the Leafs were playing the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s enough of a challenge for most teams.
Now they’re playing a bunch of other things as well – history, the media, the fans, the Sportsnet intermission panel, the rubberneckers who only get interested when the Leafs are down to one hand hanging onto the ledge, and, most crucially, themselves.
A couple of nights ago, it was possible to sell yourself on the idea that Tampa was over it. That it would like to win this series, but that it wasn’t going to beat itself up if it had one down year after two great ones. On the basis of Sunday night, daydreaming about Tampa rolling over to get its belly rubbed is no longer possible.
A couple of days ago, when someone asked Lightning coach Jon Cooper about offence, his breezy answer was, “Goal scoring against these guys – that’s not a worry to me.”
Cooper would have looked pretty silly if his team hadn’t scored a bunch the next time out. But they did, so now he looks like Zoltar the fortune teller.
And if it hadn’t happened, you feel fairly sure that Cooper would’ve spun it so that it was his own fault Nikita Kucherov hit the post 10 times.
The best-of-seven series is 2-2, but the angle of it has tilted. Tampa has assumed control. Up and down its bench, from the top line to the coaches to the equipment guys, it looks serene.
When the camera lingered on the Leafs bench on Sunday night, it was to focus in on whale-eyed backup goalie Eric Kallgren, or Keefe going purple as he shrieked at a referee, or starting netminder Jack Campbell trying to talk his way out of getting pulled.
You couldn’t hear what was being said, but the visual tableau was clear. This is a group in crisis.
When things are going well for the Leafs, events have an easy momentum. Now that things aren’t, everything is reduced to small, grinding tasks.
The next problem is the first shift of Game 5. Who will the Leafs start? If it’s Holl and the third line, Keefe is telling us he believes in his own judgment. Great. But what does that say to Auston Matthews and the other thoroughbreds?
If it isn’t the grinders, Keefe is admitting he was wrong, and why didn’t he do that in front of the mic? And why didn’t he start the Matthews line in Game 4? And what happens if Toronto gives up the first goal? And how short is Campbell’s leash now? And don’t even think about what happens if the Leafs lose. What sort of material do you have left over for that presser?
That and a whole bunch more will be running through the Leafs’ minds on a loop for 40-odd hours.
You know what’s running through Tampa’s minds? Nothing. When you’ve done this right before, you have the luxury of realizing that worrying doesn’t help.