'It's pretty incredible': Chemistry between Matthews, Marner reaches 'all-time high'
Maple Leafs players enjoyed a day off in Montreal on Sunday. Head coach Sheldon Keefe addressed the media via Zoom.
The trade deadline is only hours away, but you wouldn't know it based on the atmosphere around the Leafs.
"Each year and each team is a little bit different," head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "It really hasn't been a factor with this team. The guys are just going about their business."
Toronto has won a season-high six straight games to strengthen its grip on first place in the North Division and general manager Kyle Dubas has vowed to do his best to improve the roster.
"It doesn't seem to be weighing on the team in any way or anything like that," said Keefe. "Even the curiosity of it isn't much of a factor. The schedule's been very busy so there's not a whole lot of time to think about much other than your opponent and resting up for the next game so I really haven't sensed it being an issue or any of that anxiety."
Leafs players have consistently stressed they're confident in the current roster while highlighting the strong chemistry this year. Jake Muzzin said on Saturday that this is the tightest the group has been since he arrived in Toronto midway through the 2018-19 season.
Dubas added veterans like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian in the off-season in part because of the personality they would bring to the room.
"Our team is just older, more experienced, not just the players we brought in, but all the players who have returned are a year older," Keefe noted. "And we've won a lot of games. So, I don't know what comes first, but I do know the spirit of our team has been very good and very healthy."
During a mid-season media availability, Dubas said if his team responded well to a March slide (1-6-0), it would put more pressure on him to make a move. The Leafs have gone 9-0-1 since March 20.
"Even when we went through that tough stretch, I really felt that the group remained confident," said Keefe. "Their personality off the ice and away from the games remained the same and that was a very encouraging sign for us in what we’re building here and the camaraderie of the group. So, that's an important piece. That is a key ingredient to any winning and successful team."
After staying off the ice Tuesday (travel day) and Thursday (day off), the team also opted not to skate on Sunday.
"Just a matter of us managing the schedule," Keefe explained. "Not just what we've been through to this point, but what's coming. A busy schedule here with back-to-back games and not a lot of time before we play again and before long we're travelling West so lots of games coming. Our practice time will be very limited over the next little while."
Toronto plays in Montreal on Monday and then returns home to host Calgary on Tuesday and Winnipeg on Thursday before heading West for a pair of games in Vancouver and then three in Winnipeg.
There will be plenty of days on the road in April so why did the Leafs travel to Montreal after Saturday's game instead of getting another night at home?
"The biggest factor is probably Masters Sunday," Keefe explained with a smile. "It's probably as big a day as there is on the calendar for a lot of our guys and wanted to make sure our travel didn't disrupt their ability to watch that. So, that's really it."
Last season, Frederik Andersen, William Nylander, Muzzin and Kasperi Kapanen played Augusta National during the team's bye week.
"We'll probably be pretty obnoxious to watch the Masters with," Andersen said back then. "Definitely some fond memories."
Dubas has already made one move this week acquiring centre Riley Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"He's travelling up with his wife and newborn tomorrow to begin that [quarantine] process," Keefe said. "The priority for us is to get him healthy so that's going to take time. We'll be happy to have him around once he gets through his quarantine."
Nash sustained a knee sprain on April 4 and isn't expected to return until the playoffs.
Nylander, meanwhile, remains in isolation as part of the NHL's COVID protocol.
"Our medical staff and trainers are doing what they can to keep him active not unlike any of the other pauses or quarantines that have gone on," Keefe said.
Despite allowing a season-high five goals, Jack Campbell notched his 11th straight win on Saturday night setting a new NHL record for consecutive victories to open a season.
"I definitely owe the boys a nice Red Lobster dinner, that's for sure," he said with a big smile after the game. "Definitely not what I expect out of myself, but thankfully we have a great team and they carried me. It was a fun game, honestly. It's not fun giving up goals and I expect more out of myself, but Ottawa really came to play and so did we and I just think the guys played so well in front of me."
Red Lobster, meanwhile, offered this response Sunday on Twitter:
Campbell and Michael Hutchinson will split the next two starts.
"We'll get a morning skate in tomorrow and make our decision there based on how Jack's feeling, but it has been very positive in terms of how he's responded to each of his games recently," Keefe said.
The team has been careful with Campbell's workload since he returned from a leg injury on March 20. When the Leafs played on consecutive nights in Calgary recently Hutchinson got the first game to give Campbell a bit more time to recover.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner combined for four goals on Saturday night and Campbell was almost at a loss to describe the dynamic duo's chemistry.
"I don't know if my vocabulary is big enough to describe it," the goalie said. "It's such a treat to watch. It's special. Some of the plays they make on a nightly basis and what they bring to this team is just invaluable ... They just work as a team and a pair. They're just always thinking of the other guy and making amazing plays. We sure are lucky they're on our team."
“They are determined to push the game in their direction...”@CraigJButton & @SarahDavisTV on how ‘relentless' Matthews and Marner have been and ready to take Maple Leafs to another level - https://t.co/v2wQYNDFt1#TSNHockey pic.twitter.com/8NuZTJshEu— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) April 11, 2021
Only Edmonton's Connor McDavid (43) has more even-strength points than Matthews (41) and Marner (38) this season.
"We want to get better every single game," Marner said. "We've done a great job just from a defensive standpoint getting the puck out of our zone quickly. We've also done a great job of hunting down pucks on the rush and knocking a lot of pucks down and getting results the other way. Chemistry-wise I think we're at an all-time high. We're talking to each other on the ice and on the bench about what we're seeing and what we want to do. Both [of us] have the same kind of offensive awareness of where each other is going to be and usually it's throwing it in a spot and knowing a guy's going to be there."
Matthews, who had been slowed by a wrist ailment last month, posted his third career NHL hat trick on Saturday and leads the league with 31 goals overall.
"Auston shot the puck probably as good as he has in, I don't know, months maybe," Keefe noted.
Alex Galchenyuk got his first chance to play on a line with Matthews and Marner on Saturday night.
"It's pretty incredible," he said. "The way they move around and find each other out there was great to watch. Playing with those guys definitely gets you moving a little bit more and they're so creative with the puck. It was great to be a part of and contribute on my end."
Galchenyuk picked up a pair of assists and made a good first impression on the first line.
"He was moving the puck very well," Marner observed. "He was on the forecheck hard. A lot of those goals result off of him on the forecheck. At the same time, he was standing in front of the net being an option for a shot tip or something like that. When we went down low, he was there to get it. He played a very good game and he was a big help for me and Auston."
Galchenyuk's work ethic has been praised by Keefe and his new teammates this season. Galchenyuk seems comfortable being the worker bee on a line, which is a new role for a guy who was picked third overall in 2012.
"It's something I focused on a lot throughout the summer," Galchenyuk explained. "You know, keep moving my feet, use my skating to get pucks for myself, pucks for my linemates, create off the forecheck and definitely a huge part of my game. I got to keep working on that, sticking to it and keep improving."
Galchenyuk is eager to re-establish himself in the NHL after bouncing between seven teams in the last four seasons. He started this year in Ottawa and was chirped by his old Senators teammates moments before Marner scored the tying goal in the second period.
"It's part of the game," he said. "Big hits and chirping is such a big part of the game, especially with no fans you hear it more [so] definitely gets you fired up and I was pretty fired up when we got that big goal."
Per NaturalStatTrick, scoring chances favoured the Leafs 12-5 in the nearly 15 minutes of five-on-five play the line had against the Senators.
"It took a little bit of time ... for Galchenyuk to find his place on that line," Keefe said. "By the second period they really got going. Obviously, they scored the two goals in the first period, but I thought that was, for the most part, Auston and Mitch connecting. I thought Galchenyuk found his place as the game went on."