The Maple Leafs held an optional skate on Wednesday in Edmonton.
Notes below on:
* With Matthews back, Leafs plan to get back on the attack
* Getting back in a rhythm is biggest challenge for Matthews
* Leafs making better O-zone decisions to limit rush chances
* Leafs playing smarter with the lead as group matures
* Rielly looking to shoot more on the power play
* Projected line-up: Barabanov out; Nylander good to go
With Auston Matthews ready to return after missing two games with a wrist injury, the Leafs are looking to get back on the attack tonight in Edmonton.
"We've defended too much," said defenceman Jake Muzzin. "We need to be cleaner with our breakouts and with our exits. We've done a good job defending, we've just done it too much."
The Leafs have outscored the Oilers 7-0 in a pair of wins to open this three-game set.
"We're not here getting comfortable with how we're playing," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "There's a lot of things that we didn't like in the last game and we're expecting to be better in those areas here today no matter who's in the lineup."
After being blanked in consecutive home games, the Leafs are anticipating a big push from the Oilers who have shuffled their lines. Dave Tippett appears set to reunite Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto. That trio was on the ice for 28 even-strength goals for and only eight against in 26 games last season.
Neal-McDavid-Puljujarvi— Ryan Rishaug (@TSNRyanRishaug) March 2, 2021
There it is.
"We've been through two games here and virtually everything's gone our way to this point," said Keefe. "Edmonton's going to make a bunch of changes to their lineup and lines. They're looking to get a spark and we certainly expect that they would. And we've got to be focused and dialled in on all our details. We had another meeting this morning and looking to clean things up."
Frederik Andersen starts for the Leafs after missing four games with a lower-body injury. He is 14-1-2 with a .923 save percentage in his career against the Oilers.
The Leafs expect to get a big spark from Matthews.
"I think he'll come in and pick up right where he left off and be a huge factor," said defenceman Justin Holl.
Matthews has a ridiculous 18 goals in 20 games this season. He will rejoin Joe Thornton and Mitch Marner on the top line.
"It's nice when you get a guy like that coming back," said Muzzin before chuckling. "You know, there's not many guys like Auston in the league. He brings energy. Obviously, he can score goals and he's been a really solid, two-way centre for us."
When Matthews returned from a one-game absence earlier this season in Calgary, he admitted it took a bit of time to get his legs going again. Matthews, of course, still scored in that matinee affair against the Flames although it was on a play where the puck bounced in off him. Usually, the 23-year-old is a precise player, who's in the right spots and can fire the puck with pinpoint accuracy.
"It's always a challenge coming back even from little injuries," Matthews said after practice on Tuesday. "It's tough not playing, not being able to get in games and keep your rhythm and keep everything going. I think that's probably the biggest thing for me ... just got to make sure I'm moving my legs out there, keeping my shifts short and playing smart."
With Matthews returning, Alexander Barabanov will be the odd man out up front.
William Nylander made a brief cameo at the optional morning skate. He is good to go tonight after sitting out Tuesday's practice to rest a nagging injury.
Connor McDavid trails Matthews by four goals in the Rocket Richard Trophy race, but has not been able to make up any ground with the Leafs superstar sidelined.
Stuck on 34 points, Draisaitl has watched Marner creep within one of him in the scoring race. Draisaitl is even with Patrick Kane while McDavid leads the way with 40 points. Matthews is at 31.
"We've done a pretty good job of taking away time and space and trying to clog up the middle and force them to the outside," said Muzzin. "They're good players. They're going to get chances. I expect them to come out hard tonight so we'll have to be ready."
"We've been staying above [them] all the time," noted centre Pierre Engvall. "When we lose the puck, we work really hard to get back and to not give them something. We're skating a lot and also being physical."
Toronto has been really effective at limiting Edmonton's rush attack. Per Sportlogiq, the Oilers average seven rush scoring chances per game, but have been limited to nine total in the past two games.
"It's a mindset," Keefe said. "Really, a lot of odd-man situations are created on loose pucks in the offensive zone and making a decision on those loose pucks. Am I going to put myself on the offensive side of it ... or do I put myself in a spot where if it doesn't go our way as a team then defensively I'm in the right place. We made the wrong decision in those areas a lot of times last season and that's been a big focus. For the most part our players have been good and diligent with that."
The Leafs are also doing a better job managing the game. In both tilts against the Oilers in this series, Toronto jumped out to an early lead and never really allowed Edmonton to gain a foothold in the game.
"After the first period we had a 3-0 lead so the game complexion kind of changes," Holl said of Monday's win. "We're playing more of a solid defensive game and trying to make sure that we really snuff out any of their chances as opposed to taking chances and trying to play offence. From a defenceman's point of view that makes our job a little bit easier, because you have a little more support. We, as a team, are playing a little more, I wouldn't say cautious, but smart given the game situation."
"That's been a good area of growth for us," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "You go into the third period with a lead and you just want to protect it and play well and we were able to do that. When you look back at years past, we haven't always been able to accomplish that."
Rielly scored a power-play goal on Monday and is looking to fire the puck more often on the man advantage. That's a tricky mindset to adopt when you play with a group that includes Matthews and Marner.
"You always want to let those guys do their thing on the half wall," Rielly said. "I know if I shoot it and it gets blocked I'm not going to get it again. So, you just have to be good with your choices and make sure they're not getting blocked. [Monday] was just a good bounce."
Rielly has 13 power-play shots in 23 games this season, which is third on the team behind Matthews and John Tavares.
Rielly only had 17 power-play shots last season in 47 games.
Leafs projected lineup for Wednesday's game:
Thornton - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Engvall - Hyman
Vesey - Boyd - Spezza
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian