If the Toronto Maple Leafs are going end their push-and-pull between looking like contenders or pretenders, head coach Sheldon Keefe wants to see his team perform better out of the gate.
"What I'm perplexed about was just the start," Keefe said following a 5-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. "Why we can't come out and assert ourselves and have urgency and have pace. We just let people fly through the neutral zone. They get to our net. It's not good enough."
The Maple Leafs took their foot off the gas against the Kings on Monday and it was evident from the opening faceoff.
Riding a season-high five-game winning streak, Toronto allowed two quality chances at the net in the first six seconds of the game.
Shortly after Auston Matthews lost the opening draw to Kings center Rasmus Kupari, Trevor Moore sped to the net and had a high-quality chance on Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell
Kupari followed up with a rebound that just missed the net. Both of those chances happened just six seconds into the game.
Moore eventually found the icebreaker in the game when he sped past Leafs defenseman Timothy Liljegren and beat Campbell in the first period.
Later in the period, Andreas Athanasiou scored an identical goal to Moore that beat Campbell. The Leafs never recovered from the 2-0 deficit.
Although John Tavares scored a power-play goal in the second period, the team couldn't generate any offense to get past Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, who made 33 saves.
The Kings locked it down. Phillip Danault, who haunted the Leafs defensively during the 2021 NHL Playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens, punished them on the other end with a pair of goals and Adrian Kempe finished the game off with an empty-netter.
"They do a really good job in the neutral zone, they don't give you a whole lot," Tavares said. "We just didn't win enough of those battles in those tight areas and then giving up the lead and playing from behind, just didn't seem to make enough plays and be consistent."
In speaking with the media before the contest, Moore, who was traded in the same deal that brought Campbell to Toronto, mentioned that he had "money on the board" for his first match against his former club.
It was Moore who got the better of Campbell. The Leafs goaltender has been known to be hard on himself following a loss and Monday wasn't any different.
"Pretty sure everyone in the building knows I wasn't my best," Campbell said. "So,[I] cost us those two points."
Keefe defended his goaltender to some extent by redirecting most of the blame on the skaters in front of Campbell and the poor first period.
Obviously he's part of spotting them a 2-0 lead early on, but it's two kids, guys in alone coming in on him. It's a tough ask for both of them," Keefe said of Campbell. "And he's bailed us out a lot so we've come to expect him to have the ability to save those and I'm sure he has the expectation of himself to stop them.
"But he's got five guys playing in front of him. They have to help him out on a night like this."
There are a couple of reasons to take the heat off Campbell for a game like this. The obvious one is the team needs their goaltender's confidence up, especially now that he's slated to endure a heavier workload for the next four weeks while Petr Mrazek is out with a re-injured groin.
The other part is the obvious struggles this team has at times getting engaged in the game.
The Leafs are in a tie for 25th in the league in scoring first this season (four times). They have played 13 games.
Although the team had their five-game winning streak snapped, Keefe pointed out following their win against the Boston Bruins that he considered two of them ties since they went to overtime.
And he's clearly sick of seeing some of the same bad habits creep up.
"This team plays great one night and has lots of urgency and plays a way that is a recipe to win consistently and then comes out the very next game and isn't the same group," Keefe said. "That was not the same level of urgency against a different opponent. Until we get that sorted out, we're going to continue to ride this wave."
Leafs fans know the wave all too well.