Muzzin: Angry approach benefits Leafs; Keefe senses additional edge
The Maple Leafs held an optional skate at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday.
The Leafs open the new NHL year against the same opponent and in the same building where last season's promising run came to a shocking end. Sixteen guys who played in the series against Montreal are returning.
"It shows belief in us, in the group," said defenceman Jake Muzzin, the only Stanley Cup champion on the roster. "[General manager Kyle Dubas] could've made changes. He could've made a lot of people happy by trading someone or doing something, but he believes in this group and it's on us to show we are who he thinks we are."
Morgan Rielly, the longest-serving Leaf, took a different tact when the subject of the core group and Dubas' loyalty was raised.
"We got a lot of change too," the defenceman pointed out. "We got a lot of new guys."
Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Michael Amadio and Petr Mrazek will all be dressing in blue and white tonight for the first time in a meaningful game.
"Hockey's the ultimate team sport," Rielly continued. "It's not about any small group of players. We got a lot of new guys. We got a new mentality, it kind of feels like to me."
The pain from last year's devastating collapse is fuelling the Leafs.
"Guys were pissed off," Muzzin said. "We came into camp to work. It wasn't just to go through the motions, it was to get better and there was a little anger in some guys. We're going to need that through the whole season."
"Guys are motivated," Rielly agreed. "They've had a good chance to clear their heads over the course of the off-season and we've come back with a clear focus ... I think it's a great opportunity for us to just go out there and play free, have confidence, prove some people wrong, do our thing."
Keefe started training camp with a conditioning skate and was struck by how the players embraced the physically demanding nature of the opening days.
"All our players have an additional edge to them, for sure. I've been capitalizing on that," Keefe said. "That's what you're looking for as a coach is a motivated group that has reasons to dig in."
Of course, sustaining that motivation is key and won't be easy over the course of an 82-game grind.
"As the year wears on, we'll see if we're up for the challenge," Rielly acknowledged. "We've talked about what's happened in the past and we want to move forward from that, and I think that will be a daily challenge."
After departing Tuesday's practice early for precautionary reasons, winger Mitch Marner was back on the ice at Toronto's optional skate.
"It was a positive morning for Mitch," Keefe said. "The skate went well so we are encouraged by that. He will be a game-time decision tonight."
Marner absorbed what Keefe described as a "glancing blow" from Wayne Simmonds during Tuesday's workout and left the ice following a discussion with an athletic therapist.
The Leafs aren't out for revenge tonight.
"No, no," Rielly said. "We played these guys a lot in the years before last year and we'll play them again. It's cool that it's a home opener, but beyond that there's no extra emotion to it."
"I'm sure there's going to be a lot of mixed emotions," said Canadiens forward Josh Anderson. "Any time you play a team in the playoffs, there's going to be high expectations and the game's going to be full of energy and physical play and a lot of scoring chances."
Anderson scored in the season-opener in Toronto last January and got on the board in Game 1 of the playoff series in Toronto.
Dating back to January, the Leafs and Canadiens have played 10 times in the regular season, seven times in the playoffs and three more times in this pre-season.
"It's a new season," said Keefe when asked about the potential for carryover emotion. "Given we've played them three times in pre-season, you get some of that stuff out of the system, but it will go to another level today. Whether we played 20 times or not, with the Leafs and Montreal the rivalry is there."
For the first time since the pandemic began, a full-capacity crowd is allowed inside Scotiabank Arena.
"I'm pumped," Rielly said. "I think it's going to be a lot of fun. Guys have their parents in town for the first time in a long time and guys are happy to have the crowd back in the mix. We're looking forward to it. We're anxiously awaiting what it's going to look like. Once we get playing, it will be interesting and fun and a cool atmosphere that we haven't experienced for a long time."
"It's really big deal," said Keefe. "We got a fair number of local guys who haven't played a regular season game [for the Leafs] in front of family before and that's really important."
Projected Leafs lines for tonight's game:
Ritchie - Tavares - Marner
Bunting - Kerfoot - Nylander
Engvall - Kampf - Kase
Spezza - Amadio - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Dermott
Injured: Matthews (left wrist), Mikheyev (broken thumb)
Healthy scratch: Liljegren
Leafs lines in the 2020 season opener:
Thornton - Matthews - Marner
Vesey - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Hyman
Barabanov - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian