TSN Toronto reporter Kristen Shilton checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who held an 11:30 a.m. team meeting at Rogers Arena before facing the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday night.
When Sheldon Keefe took over the Leafs’ bench on Nov. 20, Toronto’s special teams were somewhat disastrous. The club’s penalty kill was ranked an abysmal 27th in the NHL (73.1 per cent) while the highly-touted power play was ranked 18th (17.6 per cent).
In the eight games since their coaching change, the Leafs have turned their special teams around entirely, boasting the best kill in the NHL (90 per cent) over that stretch, and they’re tied with their opponent on Tuesday night, the Vancouver Canucks, as the NHL’s top-ranked power play (41.7 per cent).
“I think we’re just generating chances, shooting the puck, having guys move in different areas, getting different looks from different players,” explained Auston Matthews after the Leafs’ team meeting on Tuesday of the power play turnaround. “That kind of keeps the penalty kill on their heels, and just keeps guys moving.”
Toronto did a good job of that in its most recent game, scoring two goals on the man-advantage in a 5-2 win over the Blues in St. Louis on Saturday to put them at 5-for-12 on the power play over these last eight games.
That was just the fourth time this season that the Leafs have notched multiple power play goals in a single game, and William Nylander thought Toronto did one thing particularly well to make it happen.
“I just think it's the movement that we have out there,” he said of how the Leafs have been better lately. “It's a key factor I think for a successful power play.”
The Canucks’ man-advantage has been finding its way of late too, going 10-for-24 over the team’s last eight games. Keefe made a point of emphasizing what a game-breaker it could be in the Leafs’ meeting.
“[It’s] just dangerous,” he said. “The weapons that they have, with a lot of dangerous shooters, puck movers with really good skill sets. Similar to us in that regard. That was just the talk in there [with us] this morning, just [that they’re] dangerous.”
Elias Pettersson said what had to change for the Canucks to get their power play rolling was a willingness to lean on one other a little more.
“It’s just trusting your teammate that they will make a play,” he said. “Play with a lot of confidence, and when the chance is there, take it. Because if you’re not shooting, you’re not going to score. Everybody on the power play can make a play and everyone can score.”
To do that, Vancouver will have to contend with the red-hot Toronto penalty kill, which is finally finding its rhythm after a tough start to the season.
“They’re a hard-working PK unit, they’ll pressure you all over the ice,” said Brock Boeser. “So we have to make sure we’re all on the same page, zipping the puck around and beating their guys and getting pucks to the net. We’re prepared for it, and hopefully we can get a few tonight.”
When the Leafs got down to studying the Canucks and their tendencies, it was hard not to feel like they were looking in a mirror.
“I think they're pretty similar to us,” said Matthews. “They’ve got a lot of skill up front, some skill on the backend as well, guys that can make plays, that can put the puck in the net, so that makes for a pretty fun game."
With the likes of Pettersson, Boeser and Quinn Hughes on one side, against Matthews, Nylander and Mitch Marner on the other, it would be easy for Tuesday’s game to become all about offence, but Matthews hopes his team can stay more level-headed than that.
“Well I think that's our job to not let it get into a free for all,” he said. “To make sure that we're in our structure and defensively we're taking care of the puck, not just turning it over and being careless with it. I think that's on us as players to make sure that's not happening.”
Both the Leafs and Canucks are 5-3-0 over their last eight games heading into Tuesday’s matchup, and both clubs find themselves on the outside of the NHL’s playoff picture looking in – Toronto sits two points back of third in the Atlantic Division, while the Canucks sit two points back of third in the Pacific.
That will make for a clash of hungry teams on Tuesday, and Toronto is prepared for the challenge.
“I think that they're playing well,” said Alex Kerfoot. “I think they're set up for success in the future. The top line is really good, they're playing well. Power play has been great so we have to stay out of the box and not give them opportunities there. They're [a] good team up and down the lineup, they work and then obviously their high-end skill guys can produce.”
Keefe also has a past history coaching against Travis Green to tap into, having gone toe-to-toe in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies against Green’s Utica Comets. But Keefe admitted he was a little surprised by what he saw when reviewing tape of Green’s NHL club.
“[From] coaching against Travis, I do see a lot of differences in how he's coaching and how Vancouver plays compared to then [with Utica],” Keefe said. “It looks to me as though he's evolved a lot and having some of the elite skill that he does will do that. So it's different. Some of the things that I was expecting to see in the video, I didn't quite see so it's a different group and different challenge for us and the team's got lots of energy and lots of skill and they're confident, too. That's going to be a tough game for us today.”
It’s a rarity that the Leafs and Canucks get to face each other, so it’s also not often that Matthews gets to see his old teammate Boeser from the U.S. National Team Development Program lined up across from him on NHL ice.
“He's an awesome guy,” Matthews said. “I've spent a bit of time with him throughout the last couple years and we only play these guys twice a year so it's always fun. Playing against your friends in general in fun, but it's always fun playing against him.”
Boeser too still looks forward to battling with Matthews at this level, given the long history they share.
“Personally for me, knowing Auston, growing up playing against him, it’s always fun when we get to go out there and play against each other,” Boeser said. “I think it’s a big game and we’re all ready for it.”
Like Matthews and Boeser, Pettersson and Nylander know each other from past playing days as well. Nylander sat next to Pettersson in the dressing room when they were playing for Team Sweden at the 2019 World Championship, and relishes each chance to face off with him during the season.
“It's always lots of fun to play against guys you own age,” Nylander said. “Just the way [Pettersson’s] able to see the ice and work and find the areas that are open and get the puck to those areas too for other guys to get a good scoring chance [really stands out].”
“I enjoy it,” Pettersson added of playing the Leafs’ young stars. “I like to play against the best, I like to play against really good players and Toronto has a lot of them, so I’m excited for tonight.”
Maple Leafs' projected lineup vs. Vancouver: