Muzzin: Angry approach benefits Leafs; Keefe senses additional edge
TORONTO — The Maple Leafs have spent five months carrying a chip on their shoulders. On Wednesday night they can put it to good use.
Toronto will open its regular season against the same opponent – Montreal – that embarrassed them in a first-round playoff loss last May. The pain of that blown 3-1 series lead haunted the Leafs all summer long and fuelled many a returning player for the year ahead.
“Guys are pissed off,” said Jake Muzzin after the Leafs’ team meeting on Wednesday. “You came into [training] camp to work; it wasn't to just go through the motions, it was to get better. And there was a little anger in some guys. We're going to need that throughout the whole season.”
That consistency will be key to Toronto’s success. After all, channeling emotion into opening night is easy; it’s showing up every other day that becomes more difficult.
The Leafs have already had some speed bumps to manage leading up to Wednesday. Auston Matthews will not be available for the game as planned following off-season wrist surgery, and Ilya Mikheyev is sidelined after undergoing successful surgery Tuesday on a broken thumb.
Mitch Marner is also a game-time decision for Toronto. He collided with Wayne Simmonds during Tuesday’s practice and left the session early for “precautionary” reasons according to coach Sheldon Keefe.
Marner participated in the Leafs’ optional morning skate on Wednesday, which Keefe called “encouraging” but wouldn’t commit to the star winger being in the lineup.
Regardless, the show must go on. And when Keefe looks at this team, he sees a crucial difference from the squad that last played in a meaningful game.
“I think all of our players have an additional edge to them for sure,” Keefe said. “They wanted [training camp] to be difficult. They want to get out in front of it. That's what you're looking for a coach with a group like that, that has got reasons to dig in. And I've seen that through camp. They've come together as a group, but it's been very businesslike from the start all the way through, and certainly this morning as well.”
Keefe’s established mantra for the season has been “raise the standard,” a phrase that encapsulates any number of definitions.
Toronto believed it had set a strong foundation and set the standard in their regular season last year through winning the North Division. Then the entire house came crumbling down in playoffs. So, the point this time around is to cultivate a mindset that doesn’t allow such things to happen.
“I think [raising the standard] is just about caring. But it's a long season,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “So, it'll be interesting to see if we're able to carry that over 82 games and [however many] months. I think that training camp is always intense, and guys care a lot, they come in great shape. So, if we can keep that going for the rest of the season, we'll be in good shape.”
“What it requires ultimately is to try to make sure that our spirit remains high,” added Keefe. “Both in our level of competitiveness and how we enjoy the process that comes with a challenging season. But also, just being around each other, having fun and understanding the things that are happening within our walls.”
There will be a lot more people inside the Leafs’ home this season too, with the Ontario government giving Toronto a green light to host full capacity crowds. The Leafs haven’t played to a packed house since March 2020, and provincial restrictions prevented even players’ family members from being in the building last year.
But that was then. And just like the Leafs attempting to turn the page on a new chapter, so too is the return of fans a part of their fresh start.
“I'm pumped. I think it's going to be a lot of fun,” said Rielly. “Guys have their parents in town for the first time in a long time. We’re happy to have the crowd back in the mix. We're looking forward to it and anxiously waiting for what it's going to look like, and I think once we get playing, it'll be a fun, cool atmosphere.”
It’s all part of a return to normalcy for the Leafs, who have no excuse not to turn talk into action. For months, everyone from players to management has said the right things about how to cultivate and ultimately reach the club’s full potential.
Now is the time to start showing it.
“The guys have great belief in what we're doing and the work that we put in for this game tonight to play for real,” said Keefe. “There’s lots of optimism. We’ve had a greater period of time to put work in [than last year]. I think that the team feels much closer and much more put together. And I think with [our] level of preparation comes confidence.”