TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Friday ahead of Saturday night’s game against the Montreal Canadiens.
With the score tied early in the third period on Wednesday, Leafs defenceman Justin Holl received a pass from John Tavares in the Montreal zone. William Nylander was open with his stick up and ready to one-time a pass. Holl noticed the winger out of the corner of his eye, but decided to try his own shot on Carey Price.
"It was unbelievable," Nylander said with a laugh. "He can do that every time if he uncorks [it] like that."
The goal was Holl's first since Feb. 27, 2020 although that one was an empty netter. So, this was the first time he beat a goalie since Nov. 13, 2019.
JUSTIN HOLL 🚨— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 11, 2021
Holl has only fired 11 shots on net in 14 games this season, but the 29-year-old is vowing to show off his slapper more often.
"I've uncorked it now so there's no turning back," Holl declared Wednesday night.
Holl was a second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, but the smooth-skating righty didn't establish himself as an every-day NHLer until last season.
"He's had a long journey to get here and his hard work has paid off, so it's fun to see he's playing so well," Nylander said.
During the 2018-19 season, Holl sat as a healthy scratch 71 times with the Leafs.
"Despite the fact he's had a very difficult road and had to exercise great patience whether in the American League or now in the NHL, he's remained confident in himself," said Leafs bench boss Sheldon Keefe, who also coached Holl with the AHL's Marlies from 2015 to 2018. "That's the biggest driver and it allowed him to remain focused and prepared when the opportunity did come."
Holl is taking full advantage of his opportunity now. He's logging 21-and-a-half minutes a game, which is up three minutes from last season. He's produced four assists in five-on-five play, which is tied with Nylander for second on the team behind only Mitch Marner. The late bloomer is plus-6 while soaking up some tough assignments and looking more and more confident with each game.
"Our whole team feels it," said Marner. "You can trust him on the ice against anyone. His speed and his stick have been, I'd say, one of the best on our team. On the [penalty] kill he's been huge, too. He's not afraid to block some big shots. He's had a hell of a start to the season."
Holl also plays a key role in the dressing room.
"He's very easygoing, very friendly," Keefe said. "Guys like being around him and he's good with everybody. He's just himself no matter the circumstances of what's happening with him and what's happening with the team, the season. He brings a lot to the spirit of our team."
"We clicked right away," Marner said. "I knew what he was all about my first year. He's the same guy still now. He's got the same character. He hasn’t really changed too much and it's been fun seeing him grow on the ice and really take the role that he's got and run away with it."
Holl and the rest of the Leafs blueliners are getting more help this year as the team embraces a more responsible style of play.
"What we try to do is don't panic in the D-zone," Marner revealed. "Right now, what we're doing well in our D-zone is all five guys are coming back strong and staying in the middle. When we do get the puck, there's no panic. It's calmness. Everyone's talking to each other and trying to get out of the D zone [cleanly] and with the puck in our hands so we can try and make plays going the other way."
The Canadiens fired 35 shots on net on Wednesday, but Keefe highlighted a different statistic post-game.
"I had this as the lowest number of scoring chances we gave up in a game all season," the coach said. "We just didn't give them much at all."
"We've kept things, for the most part, out of the middle," said defenceman Zach Bogosian. "We're tight through the middle. We like our chances when we keep the puck to the outside."
Josh Anderson was one of the few Montreal players able to generate action around Toronto's crease. The winger scored the game's opening goal off a rush after delivering a big hit on Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin in the neutral zone.
"He's a big body that can skate with a ton of skill," noted Bogosian. "He plays mean. He finishes his checks. He's a really effective player."
Nylander barely avoided a collision with Anderson in the first period.
"He flies," Nylander said. "He's a big boy so, I mean, just try and get out of the way if he tries to hit you."
Sometimes you have no choice, but to initiate contact with the 6-foot-3, 226-pound native of Burlington, Ont.
"On the forecheck, you just got to try and cut him off without getting any penalties and kind of slow him down so he's not coming in at full speed and making it hard on our D," said Marner.
The grittiest™️ winger in the Canadian division and Josh Anderson pic.twitter.com/5VbSDWRkLM— Net Front Nylander 2 (@nylander4hart2) February 11, 2021
Anderson scored twice against the Leafs in the first game of the season.
"He's good at taking the puck to the net and challenging D," said winger Zach Hyman, "so try to help the D out and cut the guy off so he's not flying 100 miles per hour on the forecheck."
Since the Leafs returned from their Alberta road trip, Nylander is goalless in four games with only five shots.
"I always want to improve," the 24-year-old said when asked to assess his season. "I'm not really happy ever with my game."
The biggest issue right now: a lack of offensive-zone time.
"We haven't, as a line, been able to get in there as much," Nylander admitted. "And, obviously, I want to shoot the puck a lot more. I haven't been getting as many pucks to the net as I have before so that's something I want to improve on a lot."
Nylander is averaging 1.9 shots per game this year, which is down from 2.9 last season.
Ilya Mikheyev played primarily with Nylander and Tavares during the last two games. The second-year Russian scored his first goal of the year on Wednesday although it came when he was out for a shift with Alex Kerfoot and Hyman.
"You see his speed," said Nylander. "He flies out there and is able to make some great plays and when you get that first one out of the way that's when the floodgates open."
"It's great to see Mickey get one," said Tavares. "He must have had the most chances in the league without one yet so definitely great to see him get rewarded for the way he's been playing and the pressure he puts on the opponent."
Auston Matthews had a chance to extend his eight-game goal streak late in Wednesday's game, but opted to pass to Hyman instead of taking aim at an empty net.
"He makes an exceptional pass to Hyman to make sure we have the higher percentage shot to ice the game," Keefe said. "That is the perfect look into his mindset."
Zach Hyman puts it in the empty net 🚨— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 11, 2021
3rd point for Muzzin pic.twitter.com/7qyr5ooA9z
That was only the latest example of how Matthews, at age 23, is helping set the tone for the team this season.
"No matter what we have asked for from our team, Auston has decided he is going to lead the way in that regard," the coach said. "I think it started in the playoff series last year against Columbus. We didn't get the results that we wanted, but if you go back to that series and focus on him and the details — physically, blocking shots, working to come back to our end — he had all of those elements in his game. He has brought that to an even greater level."
Joe Thornton (fractured rib on Jan. 20) and Nick Robertson (knee injury on Jan. 16) practised with the team for the second time this week as they continue to work their way back.
"Today's practice was an important one for that process," Keefe said. "It looks like they got through it well, but I haven't talked to our trainers or doctors or anything in terms of what the next step is. It certainly looks as though it is on the horizon here."
After Saturday's game against Montreal, the Leafs will hold a practice on Sunday before hosting the Ottawa Senators on Monday.
Lines at Friday's practice:
Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Mikheyev
Vesey - Kerfoot - Engvall
Petan - Boyd - Spezza
Barabanov - Thornton - Robertson
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian
Lehtonen - Sandin
Power-play units at Friday's practice:
Matthews - Petan - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Spezza