After tough lessons, Leafs are 'a little better prepared' for playoffs
TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs who (optional) skated at Scotiabank Arena ahead of tonight's game against the Rangers.
William Nylander hasn't scored in 11 straight, but there are signs he's starting to find his top form. Since reuniting with centre Auston Matthews, he has six assists in six games.
"We're clicking," Nylander said of his line, which also includes left winger Andreas Johnsson. "We've been creating a lot of chances the last couple games and hopefully we can build off that."
While Matthews has been elevating his game for the last little bit, Nylander's momentum was stalled by an illness this week. He missed yesterday's practice, but was able to participate in Toronto's optional skate this morning.
"Willie's been sick the last couple so not quite the same energy," noted head coach Mike Babcock, "but he's feeling way better about himself, skating better and winning more battles and obviously that makes him much more dangerous. We need him to still find another level confidence-wise before the playoffs."
Nylander, who watched little brother Alexander Nylander score on Wednesday in Buffalo, certainly wants to pitch in with a few more goals of his own.
"I mean, I like getting assists, but it would be nice to score, that's for sure," he said while mustering a smile.
But Nylander is still influencing the game in a number of important ways. His ability to move the puck up the ice is a huge asset, especially with Toronto dealing with a couple key injuries to puck-moving defencemen.
"His edge work is extremely good," observed Matthews, "and just his skating ability, his head’s always up, he sees the play so well and I feel like when he's going through the neutral zone he's almost thinking a step or two ahead of the guy who's chasing him down."
"He's very efficient in his skating," defenceman Jake Muzzin agreed, "and it’s kind of elusive. It's like you don't think he's going fast but he is and he's ahead of guys. And the way he distributes the puck, it's a lot of fakes and stuff, you don't know where he's going to move it, he knows, so it’s tough to defend and when he creates some more space for Mats and Johnny, opportunities are going to come."
Babcock is prodding the 22-year-old Nylander to put himself in position to utilize this skill more.
"The harder he works to get back to create separation from their defence to create some gap for him, he can turn and get going," the coach said. "So, it’s just what I talked about earlier, the harder he competes, the more space he creates for himself, the more he has the puck and therefore the more dangerous he is."
Nylander and Matthews were uncharacteristically quiet in last year's seven-game setback against the Bruins with each contributing just one goal before being split up later in the series. Matthews seems determined to carry a lot of momentum into this spring's rematch.
"Physically I feel pretty good," he confirmed, "and our line’s been clicking pretty well. I think you just want to continue that and get better and better. These last couple games for our line and individually have been pretty good. I think we've controlled the play, we've had the puck, we've been working extremely hard to get it back when we don't have it and that’s just a key for us."
Since saying the Leafs "quit" in the third period in a loss to Tampa Bay on March 11, Matthews has four goals, three assists and a whopping 32 shots on net in five games. And Wednesday in Buffalo, he was absolutely dominant. Muzzin was asked if that's the best he's ever seen the 21-year-old centre play.
"Yeah, it was pretty impressive," Muzzin gushed. "I don't know what it was but the puck was not leaving his stick. I don’t know, his hands were feeling it that night or what, but (with) his work ethic and when the puck is glued to his stick like that it’s tough to get it off him."
"Matty has skated really well here this last while," said Babcock, "I thought he was real physical on offence last game, got the puck back a ton and so did Johnny. That made their line dangerous."
Matthews said the first two periods in Buffalo represent exactly how the Leafs want to play.
"That’s our team right there," he said. "We're fast, we're back on defence, we're tracking and we're coming in the offensive zone and playing below the dots and we're utilizing our skill and letting that flow."
It's imperative that the Leafs build on that performance in the next stretch of games, including four straight against teams outside the playoff picture. The challenge of maintaining that level starts tonight against a Rangers side that has lost 11 of 12 and will be without the injured Chris Kreider.
New York will have Alexandar Georgiev in net. The Bulgarian backstop turned aside 55 Leafs shots in a 4-1 win over Toronto just last month.
"He gave us a lot of trouble last time so we got to do a much better job tonight trying to take away his eyes," Matthews said. "I mean, he made some pretty unbelievable saves, but just those rebounds and getting to the net and those second-chance opportunities will be important."
After allowing 23 goals in four games last week, the Leafs have effectively stopped the bleeding this week allowing three goals, including an empty netter, in Nashville on Tuesday and just two in Buffalo the next night.
"The last two games, for us, has been better in the D zone," observed Muzzin, who registered an assist in 24:13 of ice time against the Sabres, "getting quicker to pucks, closing quicker, making the exits a little cleaner and spending less time in D zone. I think we've done a better job boxing out giving Freddie (Andersen) and (Garret) Sparks room to see the puck coming in, shots from the point coming in so we look to build off what we've done the last two games."
After missing two games and yesterday's practice due to illness, Martin Marincin skated this morning, but the defenceman won't play tonight. That means the third pair will continue to be Justin Holl and Igor Ozhiganov.
Babcock was asked if there's any timeline for the return of Jake Gardiner.
"None. He didn't skate today, so I don't know. We just talked this morning, 'How's the kid? How's life?' I didn't ask him about it."
Gardiner will sit out a 13th straight game tonight with a back injury.
Projected Leafs line-up for Saturday's game: