The Maple Leafs practised at the Centennial Sportsplex in Nashville on Sunday afternoon.
Auston Matthews admits his injured right wrist still isn't 100 per cent, but the Maple Leafs centre is trending in the right direction.
"I feel good," Matthews said after participating fully in Sunday's practice, skating in his regular spot alongside Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner. "I feel a lot better than the previous week so all signs point towards playing tomorrow. I thought today's practice was a good sign."
Bothered by the issue for the past two to three weeks, Matthews stayed off the ice during the all-star weekend in St. Louis while wearing a brace.
"Based on how it looked on the ice today and my conversation with him, it seems to be, I would say, a low level of concern," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "The time away and treatment he got seemed to help so it's looking like he'll be ready to go tomorrow."
Despite the pain, Matthews has managed to keep scoring with 10 goals in his last 10 games.
The bigger concern at the moment is how the team played in the six games before the bye week, losing five times while allowing 28 goals in that stretch.
What is Keefe looking for tomorrow against the Predators?
"Just a positive response," he said. "If you look at the first 20 games since I got here I think we're 15-4-1 and 1-2-3 in the six games since then so two different looks, two different teams, two different samples and you separate it and we'd like to think we're a little bit more like the team in the first 20 and we want to go back out and show it."
Keefe accused his team of being "immature" in lopsided losses to the Panthers (8-4 on Jan. 12) and Blackhawks (6-2 on Jan. 18). The game in Florida, against a divisional rival, came after the team arrived early to the Sunshine State with the players getting a full day off there. The loss to Chicago came on the eve of the bye week.
"That's not what you want to be about as a team," Keefe said. "You want to rise to those occasions and you want to finish the job so the fact that we weren't able to do that is disappointing. That's an area off growth, an opportunity for our team."
After the slow start to the season, which cost Mike Babcock his job, the Leafs have very little margin for error and enter the unofficial second half four points out of a playoff spot. Starting tomorrow, Toronto will play 33 games in 69 days.
"We recognize you got a lot of games in a short amount of time here coming and that it's going to be a grind all the way through," Keefe said. "We also recognize the situation that we're in in the standings and it’s going to be a battle right to the very end likely. But, we got to focus on every day as it comes and we started today with our practice and with what I thought was a good and productive meeting and setting the tone for what remains and the job that's ahead for us.
"We tried to paint a picture for our guys that it’s easy to focus a lot on how we finished in the last six games, in particular, before the break there, but that's just one sample and you look at a bigger sample and it presents an entirely different picture in terms of the progress we've made as a team and the reason for us to believe that we can get things moving back in the right direction."
The return of Jake Muzzin will be a big boost. Out since Dec. 27 with a broken foot, the defenceman agreed to go down to the AHL for a conditioning stint during the bye week suiting up for the Marlies on Friday. Muzzin had not played in the minors in more than seven years.
"Credit to him just for having no ego or not being concerned about anything other than just getting himself as prepared as possible for this," said Keefe. "Talking with him it seems like it was a very positive experience and he felt great today and will be ready to go tomorrow."
It appears Muzzin, who is averaging 21:21 of ice time per game, won't be eased back into the lineup. He was reunited with Justin Holl at practice.
"Going down and just getting a game in and getting a sweat and the work, it’s a lot better than just skating by yourself or doing skills or something like that," Muzzin said. "You're getting into game action, get your mind going, get your body into it, stuff like that."
Muzzin, 30, is the only player on the team with a Stanley Cup ring and despite not wearing a letter, is part of the extended leadership group.
"In many ways he's the conscience of our team and speaks a lot," Keefe said, "has a great presence, great experience, of course, and then really is an important player for us on the back end who makes everyone else a little bit better."
Muzzin believes the solution to Toronto's recent slide is quite simple.
"There's a lot of good things we've been doing and we got to just tighten up some things defensively and I think we’ll be OK," Muzzin observed. "That's the gist of it."
With Muzzin returning, Martin Marincin was the odd man out at practice.
Meanwhile, Rasmus Sandin skated alongside Cody Ceci and will suit up in his 10th game of the season tomorrow, which means the Leafs will be burning the first year of his entry-level contract. But with Morgan Rielly sidelined for the foreseeable future with his own foot fracture, the 19-year-old has earned a longer look.
"Just his confidence," Keefe explained, "his ability to play and continue to make plays and help us on the break-out and in the offensive zone and power play, you know, a lot of those types of things that Morgan brings to our team, he's able to do those things as well."
It was a weird day around the Leafs, who reunited after the break and also came to grips with the shocking news that Kobe Bryant was among those who perished in a helicopter crash.
"It's one of those things that you can’t really put into words," said Matthews, who was born in California. "It's just hard to believe. Obviously, what he did on the court, what he did off the court, was just amazing. It’s sad. You really feel for his family and the world lost an unbelievable person and an unbelievable idol so it’s really sad news."
A couple years ago, Matthews and then-teammate Patrick Marleau decided to read Bryant's book, "The Mamba Mentality: How I Play." What stood out?
"Just his drive and passion and commitment to be the best was second to none," Matthews said. "I never watched him live. I never met him, but I was a pretty big fan when I was a kid. It was always fun watching those finals with Boston and just how passionate he was and the commitment that he put into it. He knew what it took to be a winner and I think that's something that he'll always be remembered as is a guy who loved to win."
Muzzin, who played for the Kings from 2010 until being traded last January, met Bryant during Los Angeles' Stanley Cup run in 2014.
"It was an interview in between periods in the Stanley Cup, I don’t know if it was the finals or one of the playoff (series) we had, and he just came over and gave me a handshake and said, 'Keep on going.' That’s the first thing I thought about when the news came out today," said an emotional Muzzin. "Everyone here is a little bit in shock, I guess. It's tough to talk about. It's tough."
Out with a concussion since Dec. 21, Trevor Moore is ready to return and will slot in on the fourth line tomorrow. Like Muzzin, Moore also spent time with the Marlies during the bye week to get back into game shape.
Due to another injury (shoulder), Moore has only played one NHL game since Nov. 15.
Lines at Sunday's practice:
Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Johnsson - Engvall - Kapanen
Moore - Gauthier - Spezza
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Barrie
Sandin - Ceci
Marincin - Timashov
Power play units at Sunday's practice:
Marner - Tavares - Matthews
Spezza - Johnsson - Kapanen