Unburdened by expectation, Källgren comes up big for desperate Maple Leafs

TORONTO – Could the answer to Kyle Dubas’s most pressing problem have been sitting quietly underneath him the whole time?

If Erik Källgren — learn the name, don’t forget the umlaut, and the K is schilent — is auditioning to be the solution, temporary or otherwise, to the Toronto Maple Leafs circus of follies in the blue paint, well, the kid is off to a fine start.

Källgren followed up last Thursday’s point-saving appearance in emergency relief with something seldom seen in these parts since the calendar flipped to 2022: a quiet, quality performance by the starting goaltender in blue.

The 25-year-old import from the Swedish league would not have been recalled from the AHL Marlies had No. 1 Jack Campbell not gone down with a rib injury last week. Nor would he have been starting this week had No. 2 Petr Mrazek made good on either of his golden opportunities to take the net and run.

In backstopping the Maple Leafs to a 4-0 shutout victory at Scotiabank Arena, Källgren did something neither of Toronto’s NHL-level goalies had been able to do for the past six games: keep the club’s goals against under four.

“We felt really good about his time in the net the last time we were in this building,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “We saw enough in his short time in the net and his time in the AHL to give him an opportunity.”

Mrazek’s string of soft goals allowed had sucked the wind from the sails of the skaters in front of him, and stirred up a Fleury of trade speculation in this town as Leafs Nation counts five more sleeps until the trade deadline.

Unburdened by expectation, Källgren is standing six feet, three inches tall and unfazed, on the ice and in front of the podium.

“Without any warning or heads up, all the sudden you’re in there at a time when the game’s not going well for us — and you saw the confidence there,” Keefe said. “The piece I might’ve been most impressed with that day is how he handled you [media] guys after the game—how he handled the questions.

“For a guy who was dealing with so much and the excitement of going in there, he showed extreme poise and confidence in that moment. It’s a big part of the position, in particular, when you’re a part of the Leafs and in this city.”

A bigger part of the position?

Stopping the dang puck.

Källgren has been doing just that through his first 90 minutes of NHL action.

“He’s a quiet guy,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “Seems [like he’s] feeling his way out a little bit. But, in saying that, when he gets on the ice and puts the gear on, seems very confident, very detailed in his demeanour.”

Källgren withstood Dallas’s early pressure strong, allowing Rasmus Sandin to score when Toronto finally got around to registering his first shot on the Stars net, at the 7:22 mark.

Tavares — subbing in as top-line center for the suspended Auston Matthews — registered an assist on Sandin’s cheeky backhander, then scored his 20th of the season by deflecting a William Nylander shot.

Ondrej Kase assumed Matthews’ place on the NHL’s most effective power-play unit and scored on the man-advantage, leaving Källgren to bolt the doors and collect the applause.

“It probably goes two ways with a new goalie,” Stars forward Tyler Seguin had said pre-game. “He’ll be unbelievable, or he’ll be a little shaky.”

Källgren was anything but shaky, as the Maple Leafs improve to 26-14-2 all-time without Matthews in the lineup.

Next up: Toronto’s future has a date with a ghost of goaltending past, as Frederik Andersen and the Carolina Hurricanes storm through on Thursday.

One must believe the pipes belong to Källgren now.

“I’m not going to try to overthink or think what might happen,” Källgren said. “I’ll just go out there and be me.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Sheldon Keefe has a firm sense of opportunity. The coach adjusted his checking line so Nick Robertson could take the opening faceoff directly against older brother Jason.

Not only did Tuesday mark the first NHL meeting between the close siblings, but it was the first time mom Mercedes and dad Hugh got to see rookie Nick play live. (Fun fact: Jason’s first-ever NHL game also took place at Scotiabank Arena.) Per tradition, Mercedes wore the sweater of her home-team son and a ballcap representing the team of her away-team son.

A conference away, the brothers still talk at least every other day and frequently battle it out mic’d-up on “Chel.”

Jason is proud of young Nick and wasn’t surprised to see him claw his way back from a broken leg all the way to the Maple Leafs’ top six.

“He’s probably the hardest worker I’ve ever seen in practice,” Jason says.

• With Matthews sidelined, Keefe occasionally went to a loaded top line of Marner–Tavares–Nylander for key O-zone faceoffs.

• Just as the Maple Leafs appreciated Matthews’ pushback during the Heritage Classic, Sabers fans gotta love Dylan Cozens finishing a big open-ice hit on Matthews in response to his cross-check of Rasmus Dahlin.

“Just seeing what he did to Ras, it was a really dirty cross-check and a dangerous cross-check by him. So, I decided to go out there and finish my check on him. And obviously a couple of guys didn’t like that. But I’d do it again if I had to,” Cozens said Tuesday.

“We just all have the same vision. We’re not about ourselves. We’re about bringing this team some success and bringing this city a Stanley Cup.”

How long until this kid gets a letter on his sweater?

• Ilya Lyubushkin’s first full game alongside Morgan Rielly?

Six hits from him, two thumbs-up from me.

• Of the seven teams sending scouts to take this one in live, the Seattle Kraken was the only club to send two representatives. One of them was assistant GM Jason Botterill. The Leafs have at least inquired about Mark Giordano and Calle Jarnkrok. Only five more days until deadline….

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