TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe can sense the knives are already out for one of the Maple Leafs' newest additions.
Toronto's head coach did his best to both deflect and spread the blame following a disappointing, uninspired effort top to bottom Friday.
Jonathan Dahlen scored the winner and Adin Hill made 30 saves as the San Jose Sharks stayed perfect on the young season by defeating the listless Leafs 5-3.
Nick Ritchie started on Toronto's top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for the second consecutive game, but was benched midway through the second period after some suspect effort in trying to block an Erik Karlsson point shot that gave the visitors a 3-2 lead — one they would never surrender.
"I can just tell by the line of questioning I've been getting over the last number of days that we want to pile on Nick Ritchie," an agitated Keefe said after a string of queries regarding the big winger.
"Let's not narrow the focus too much."
The trio haven't had much live action together with Matthews, who played his first game of the season in Monday's 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers, working his way back from wrist surgery.
Ritchie has yet to register a point through five outings with Toronto, and took an undisciplined penalty early Friday.
"I think we could be a really dominant line," said Matthews, who added he didn't have his best night either. "We're still a work in progress chemistry-wise.
"It's not going to happen overnight."
They lasted just over 4 1/2 periods before Ritchie — signed to a two-year, US$5-million contract in free agency with an eye toward replacing Zach Hyman in the top-6 — was demoted, with Pierre Engvall and, to a lesser extent, William Nylander taking turns the rest of the way on left wing against the Sharks.
Ritchie got five shifts in the third period, mostly on the fourth line with Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds.
Keefe said he expects to try the Ritchie-Matthews-Marner combination again Saturday when Toronto visits the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"That line wasn't going," Keefe said. "You should be asking as many questions about Matthews and Marner as you should (about) Ritchie."
Logan Couture added two goals and an assist, while Timo Meier, with a goal and an assist each, provided the rest of the offence for surprising San Jose (4-0-0).
"It was another team win," Meier said. "We're finding our identity."
Spezza, Ondrej Kase and John Tavares replied for Toronto (2-2-1).
Michael Hutchinson stopped 26 shots for the Leafs, who have scored 11 times — with only one coming from Matthews, Marner and Tavares — in five games to open the schedule.
"There was not a lot to be had out there both ways," Keefe said. "It was a pretty dull hockey game all the way through, which is exactly what San Jose was looking for."
While the home side had 72 hours off between games, the Sharks played for the third time in four nights, including Thursday's 2-1 victory against the Ottawa Senators.
Friday's puck drop was also scheduled for 6 p.m. ET with the Leafs set to embark on their first trip to the U.S. since March 2020 right after the game ahead of Saturday's tilt in Pittsburgh.
The offensive floodgates opened in the second period following a sleepy opening 20 minutes.
Couture scored his second goal of the season at 2:31 when he banged home a Marc-Edouard Vlasic wraparound attempt.
Spezza, who lost the defensive zone faceoff on Couture's icebreaker, replied when he buried his second of the year just 56 seconds later on a scramble.
But the Sharks responded 17 seconds after that when Meier fired an innocent-looking shot that found its way through Hutchinson, who got the call with Jack Campbell scheduled to start Saturday and Petr Mrazek (groin) out injured.
"(The Sharks) are on their way and they're really believing what they're doing, so to get behind in the game is not ideal for us," Keefe said. "It took us a while to really find our way towards getting to the net and getting some meaningful scoring chances."
Kase evened it up once again at 10:24 when he blocked a Tomas Hertl shot and raced in all alone. The Leafs winger beat Hill with a move to the backhand before crashing into referee Wes McCauley, but both got up unscathed.
The visitors took a lead for a third and final time at 11:55 when Karlsson thumped his second upstairs on Hutchinson, who made his first NHL start since April 4, after Matthews threw a blind pass in an attempt to clear the zone and Ritchie couldn't get in the way of the two-time Norris Trophy winner's blast.
"There's a spot between underthinking and overthinking," Hutchinson said of the middle period. "You need to find that sweet spot.
"If you go either way in either direction, then the game becomes a little bit more challenging."
San Jose stretched its advantage to 4-2 only 25 seconds into the third when Dahlen took a pass from Couture and fired five-hole on Hutchinson for his third.
"That's inexcusable," Keefe said. "You cannot start the period like that when you're trying to come back."
Toronto's power play got its second opportunity with eight minutes gone in the period, but couldn't get much of anything going to now sit 3 for 16 on the season.
"Not on the same page, fighting it, not executing," Keefe said of a No. 1 unit that slumped badly down the stretch in 2020-21. "A lot of the same stuff we saw last season, to be honest.
"And not nearly good enough."
The Leafs got back within one at 13:39 when Nylander's shot went off Tavares and dribbled over the goal line for his first to make it 4-3.
Karlsson hit the post off the rush with two minutes to go and Toronto pressing at the other end. Hill then flashed the leather on a Matthews one-timer before Couture iced it into the empty net.
"They make it challenging to get to the net," Keefe said of the Sharks. "There's nothing that happened tonight we weren't prepared for, we didn't talk about.
"We didn't adjust quickly enough."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2022.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press