GLENDALE, Ariz. — Sheldon Keefe was overcome with emotion.
There he was, in the middle of the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room surrounded by his players, who were hooting and hollering with glee. His first game as Maple Leafs coach Thursday had resulted in his first win as an NHL coach, and captain John Tavares wanted to mark the occasion by presenting Keefe with the game puck.
“They’ve been really welcoming to me, they’ve been really engaged,” Keefe said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better first day.”
One day after replacing Mike Babcock, Keefe guided the Maple Leafs to a 3-1 win against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena, ending Toronto’s six-game winless streak (0-5-1). It was by far the most complete effort by the Maple Leafs in weeks.
More importantly, it was the way they did it that impressed their new coach.
The 39-year-old spent the past five seasons as coach of the Toronto Marlies, guiding the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League team to the best regular-season record twice (2015-16, 2017-18), and the Calder Cup championship in 2018. His recipe for success includes pushing players to stress their offensive skills by holding on to the puck and using their speed, as well as having defensemen jump into the play.
Without having the chance to run the Maple Leafs through a full practice, Keefe spent much of the lead-up to the game holding meetings with his players, emphasizing a much more free-flowing system than what had been employed under Babcock in his four-plus seasons as Toronto coach.
It was evident the Maple Leafs received his message at 19:14 of the first period when defenseman Tyson Barrie saw an opportunity to pinch and converted the opportunity to give Toronto a 1-0 lead.
It was the first time in nine games and sixth in 24 games this season that the Maple Leafs scored first. More importantly, it was the first goal of the season for Barrie, who was acquired in a trade from the Colorado Avalanche on July 1.
Keefe said the reaction of Barrie’s teammates to the goal was an indication of how tight-knit of a group they are.
“The biggest takeaway for me today is that we’ve got really good people here, good energy, and it was really noticeable for me when that first goal went in,” Keefe said. “Most of the guys are happy to score, but it was different, it was a different feeling on the bench just because you can tell they care for one another, and to see Barrie score that goal, it was a good moment.”
The Maple Leafs’ newfound aggressiveness was on display again in the second period, this time on the penalty kill.
They had allowed a power-play goal in 13 of the previous 16 games. Looking for a way to spark the unit, Keefe put rookie forward Pierre Engvall, playing his second NHL game, on the penalty kill.
The move paid off when Engvall scooped up a Coyotes turnover in the neutral zone and scored shorthanded at 16:49 for first NHL goal.
“I mean, just the feeling to score was unbelievable. I’m just so happy for it,” said Engvall, who last week was playing for Keefe in the AHL.
“That’s an area of Pierre’s game that wasn’t there before he came to the Marlies,” Keefe said. “He was given that responsibility and he has really learned to the point where I trusted him here in an NHL game to do it.”
Forward Auston Matthews scored 48 seconds into the third period to give Toronto a 3-0 lead. Matthews, who attended Coyotes games as a kid growing up in the Phoenix area, was thrilled to score in front of friends and family.
Even more than that, he said it was great to embrace Keefe’s creative system.
“I just think (we have) a little bit more freedom and we weren’t really just giving up the puck,” he said. “I thought when something wasn’t there, we’d just kind of come back and hang on to it, and we’d all come up and support each other. We didn’t have guys all over the place.”
The Coyotes scored in the final minute, but it wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits of the Maple Leafs.
Making the night even more special for the coach was that his entire family was on hand to see it. Keefe’s wife, Jackie, is from Arizona, and the couple spends part of the offseason in the area.
In that regard, the puck he received after the game meant even more.
“It has the Coyotes logo on it, which is pretty meaningful for me and my family as well,” he said. “It’s a special day in that sense, but one of the things I was really wanting to be mindful of was to not make today about me. I want to make it about the players and about the team, and I’m happy that it worked out good for everybody.”
That it did. At least on this memorable night.