Maple Leafs’ John Tavares responds to Sheldon Keefe’s callout for accountability

Maple Leafs’ John Tavares responds to Sheldon Keefe’s callout for accountability

TORONTO — As harsh as Sheldon Keefe sounded Tuesday night after watching his team fumble two leads and mistake its way to a 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils, the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t say anything publicly that wasn’t first addressed behind closed doors.

Seldom does Keefe speak to his players immediately after a loss.

Trudging through 82 games is a grind, and athletes aren’t always the most receptive to criticism in those frustrated moments that follow a buzzer and a blown opportunity.

So, it speaks to the pressure that the coach is feeling, the urgency he is eagerly trying to instill in his depleted but relatively comfortable group, that Keefe was so ticked off by the Leafs’ “immature” performance in the game’s final two periods that he called out captain John Tavares in front of the group post-game.

That he vocalized his displeasure with his leadership core, and how their failure to set the bar and stick to the gameplan was contagious in a negative way.

“Especially as the captain, you really want to be at the top of the list for being accountable in setting the standard and the way we need to play,” Tavares said Wednesday, following a light (and lightly attended) practice session.

“Sometimes you try to do too much, or you try to grab the game right back instead of just staying with the process and the way we need to play. So, it’s just important to focus on that process. And when we do that over the course of 60 minutes, it usually leaves us in a pretty good spot.”

Keefe didn’t walk back his initial critique. He did, however, add core forwards Auston Matthews and William Nylander to the list of veterans he expects to ramp the standard of detailed play with just 11 games remaining on the schedule.

He also predicted a strong response from Tavares, starting with Thursday’s chance to sweep the season series against the Washington Capitals.

“He’s been great, and he will be great,” Keefe said. “I brought John up yesterday, as I did in the room with the team, because he’s our leader. He’s got to set the tone for our group. Sometimes, it’s part of his play; sometimes, it’s as captain to help bring the group back when they’re slipping, when others are slipping.

“Stick to structure. Stick to a plan. And stick to our mindset that we had going into the game, which was really to approach the game the exact same way we approached Edmonton.”

Confounding, it must be, that the same team that kept Connor McDavid & Co. off the scoreboard at 5-on-5 with a fierce defensive effort on Saturday looked so porous for two periods against an opportunistic Devils team with fading playoff hopes a few nights later.

“It doesn’t mean I’m not going to bring it to their attention, let them know we’re not happy about it,” Keefe said.

“You’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And based on the way our group has been over the last couple of months, I’m expecting that it won’t.”

Samsonov ‘ready to play’ after injury scare

Turns out, Saturday’s heart-in-throat moment, when a dialed-in Ilya Samsonov limped down the tunnel during Toronto’s home win over the Oilers, was no big deal.

“I’m happy it’s just a calf. If it’s groin, I’m done probably for season,” the upbeat goaltender said. “I’m available right now.

“I feel healthy. Everything is good. Like, ready to play again.”

Samsonov explained a hit post and a calf muscle contusion left him feeling sore the last couple days but that he is refocused and happy to get the net back, whenever it’s available.

“We need to play really hard every game because as soon as playoffs [begin], everything changes really quick,” said Samsonov, who improved his record to 19-6-7 with that W over the Oilers.

“Every team will play hard. Angry. It’s different hockey. We need to get ready for this.”

One-Timers: Joseph Woll will make a third consecutive start Thursday versus Washington, a team he’s defeated twice already this season. … Mitch Marner skated again Wednesday but has yet to participate in a full practice since spraining his ankle. He’s not expected to play this week, extending his absence to 10 games. … Morgan Rielly (upper body) and other as-yet-unnamed players are questionable to dress Thursday as well.

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