DALLAS — When Sheldon Keefe finished scowling at Tuesday’s game sheet he looked at the NHL standings for solace.
While a shot at first place in Atlantic took a hit with a blown four-goal lead in Florida, the results of perhaps the hardest stretch of Toronto’s schedule encouraged the coach that no first-round playoff match-up will be mission impossible.
The Leafs won three out of four against their direct competition, including three of four points against the Panthers, despite the 7-6 overtime loss. Throw in a win over Metro Division leading Carolina and the Leafs could be at 100 points by the weekend.
That won’t satisfy fans who’ve watched their puzzling defensive game at times as part of an unusual modus operandi this season. But 70 games in, the Leafs have less than 19 regulation losses in a division that was supposed to swallow them.
“I hated the way we gave up the lead,” Keefe said Tuesday before the team flew to Texas. “But there’s lots to take away, back-to-back (from a win Tampa) against a good team.
“Confident, committed and I’ll use the word resilience again.”
He pointed to the dying stages of regulation, with FLA Live Arena at its loudest after the Panthers stormed back to take a 6-5 lead, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Claude Giroux seemingly overwhelming Toronto’s big guns. But then Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and the rest of the No. 1 power play came out one last time.
“A critical moment when we needed our best players to execute,” Keefe said of the eventual Tavares goal. “And Jack Campbell gives us a big pad save at 6-5 for the chance to go to overtime. John had a breakaway (that could’ve won it), but that’s the way it goes.”
It was a rare opportunity to beat both the defending Cup champion Bolts and Panthers at home on the same trip, something only the Colorado Avalanche have managed the past three years. Jason Spezza said the Leafs got a taste of their own medicine when the Panthers turned their game up.
“It’s the same way we can cause fits when you have offensive weapons. They get momentum and get feeling good and we let them get that once we had it. It’s good we learn a lesson, from a team we may see again (in playoffs). A penalty for too many men and they have good special teams.
“That was a frustrating game to lose. You want to lock it down and we’ve been good at that most of the year (currently fourth in the league with 33 victories leading after two). We’ll get back to it next game. ”It’s great to play these teams. I think we rise to the occasion. Our team stacks up well against anyone.”