ANAHEIM – Those boos ringing in the Maple Leafs’ ears have nothing to do with Halloween.
But all the bats in their bell tower during this continued slow start could haunt coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas as the team limps home on a four-game losing streak.
It culminated in monstrous fashion on Sunday, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks, who hadn’t won in seven straight, a game Toronto led all night, including 3-1 at one point with a chance. penalty to extend it.
Add that collapse to previous losses against the underdogs of Arizona, Montreal and, on this trip, San Jose and Los Angeles, and there are more questions about this new roster that Dubas built and Keefe is trying to tame.
Several Toronto media outlets requested interviews with Dubas after the game, but were refused.
After 10 days out, the Leafs will get time off, a practice on Tuesday and an enhanced visit from the Philadelphia Flyers club on Wednesday.
Outside Scotiabank Arena, expect little support or sympathy for the GM and coach, who needed a strong start this month to wipe away memories of another spring playoff loss.
“We’re used to dealing with noise,” Keefe said with a shrug of the harsh reception ahead.
On his own fate if losses mount, he added: “I just want to focus on what I can do here. I have a job to do with the group and the group has responded in the past.”
But the Leafs seem to be thinking too much about simply repeating what happened a year ago when they won just two of their first seven, then soared to 115 points. Sunday’s setback left them 4-4-2 and this is a new team that may or may not be established.
“I still think (confidence) is very high,” backup captain Mitch Marner said, as he took responsibility for a couple of decisions the Ducks took advantage of. “We started off much worse last year and everyone tried to mess with our brains. It’s outside noise, it’s big in Toronto. It’s not going to happen to us.”
Trevor Zegras’ second goal of the game beat Erik Kallgren at 2:15 of extra time after Marner was stopped just as he was left alone in John Gibson’s door and attempted to tackle the Ducks goalkeeper.
What would have been Anaheim’s go-ahead goal in the final minutes of regulation was nullified by goalie interference, but the Leafs had plenty of chances to win in regulation, as did Marner and Auston Matthews in overtime.
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The standards for Toronto have certainly failed when playing a 1-6-1 team can be labeled a ‘must win’, but the result failed to calm Keefe and Dubas.
The Leafs still have trouble generating goals and integrating new roster members, though two of them, Denis Malgin and Calle Jarnkrok, scored Sunday.
The Leafs just couldn’t let a good sustained effort go by without some kind of self-inflicted injury. One was committed by Filip Kral, in his second NHL game, and it looked good until he tried to put a pass through Derek Grant in the middle just as the intermission period ended. Kallgren was required to make a breakaway save and Matthews to take a cutting call.
Toronto converted that for its first short shot of the year, a stretch pass from TJ Brodie that Alex Kerfoot and Jarnkrok converted early in the third period.
Shortly after, Kerfoot had a breakaway hindered enough to warrant a penalty kick, but found no room for Gibson because he came in too close and shot wide.
Moments later, Zegras capitalized on a Marner fumble at the Anaheim blue line after being sent in for an escaped backhand deke against Kallgren. The Leafs chose their No. 2 goaltender, who, like Ilya Samsonov in Los Angeles the previous afternoon, put up with mistakes from his teammates at key moments.
Anaheim tied it 3-3 when defenseman Dmitry Kulikov pushed the puck past John Tavares, around the net, and beat Kallgren in the return.
The Leafs have scored just nine goals in the last four losses.
“All losses suck,” Keefe said of how they blew Sunday’s lead. “In the second period, we looked much more like we can be. We’ve struggled to our own end, so you have a lot of tired people on the ice who can’t get out and it snowballs. A huge understaffed goal to start the third, then you bring them back to life.”
William Nylander and Marner set up Matthews for a quick move at 4:23, giving him two goals on the trip.
Kerfoot’s renewed second row, Tavares and Jarnkrok thought he had scored soon after, Kerfoot half raising his stick, but the puck slid off an empty net. As Kerfoot looked skyward, Jakob Silfverberg charged at the other end.
Toronto regained the lead before the period was over, thanks to another ad hoc line, Nick Robertson and Nylander setting up Malgin, who moved to the right side with Nylander moved to center.
“We didn’t get off to a great start last year, it’s not what we’re looking for this year,” Tavares said between the LA and Anaheim games. “Every match we’ve had a chance to win. Have we already played to our abilities? I do not think so.
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