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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Monday ahead of hosting the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night in the first game of their three-game series at Scotiabank Arena.

The Auston Matthews injury wasn't the only concern for Toronto's top line in Vancouver. Mitch Marner also wasn't at his best. The shifty winger usually has the puck on a string, but made two errant passes leading to two Canucks goals in the third period on Saturday. 

"We've just got to control the puck more in the O-zone, keep the puck in our hands, try and make the right play when it’s there," Marner said after the 4-2 loss. "Right now maybe we're just forcing it a little bit too much."

Matthews agreed with that assessment. 

"Definitely we can improve in a lot of different areas," he said. "We were just forcing it a couple of times and there were too many one-and-dones and we weren't really sustaining much offensive-zone time."

Left winger Joe Thornton was replaced by Zach Hyman in the third period on Thursday in the 3-1 defeat and also at times down the stretch on Saturday. But the 41-year-old was back in his usual spot with Matthews and Marner at practice. 

"Just funnel more pucks to the net, get some more traffic in there," Thornton said in offering his prescription for a bounce-back effort. "Just get around the net and bang some loose ones in. But, we've been doing a good job and just have to continue." 

Even when they don't have their best stuff, the Leafs have been competitive this season. Their most lopsided loss of the year was a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Calgary Flames on Feb. 22. 

"We compete hard," Thornton said. "We compete hard every night. We're a deep four-line team, deep six D and we got some great goaltending so it's just a very complete team. You feel like, when you hit the ice, you have a chance to win every night and when you have that feeling it's pretty nice."

 

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During the recent road trip, Jason Spezza expressed admiration for how Matthews performed despite playing through pain much of the season.  

"It shows his commitment to the game," the veteran forward said. "It shows how much he cares about the wins and losses and he understands his place with the team and what he means to us."

Matthews doesn't have a goal or an assist in three outings since returning from an injury, but the 23-year-old's determination to play is likely earning him points in a different way.

"It just shows his maturity as a player and as a person, just realizing how important he is," Spezza said. "The fact that he's willing to play though injury, I think that earns him a lot of points in the room with how committed he is."

Matthews dealt with what he called a hand issue​ earlier this season and missed one game due to the ailment. It was his wrist that needed attention on the bench during a game against Calgary on Feb. 24. He missed the next two games. 

"It is clear it affects his shot," acknowledged coach Sheldon Keefe. "We have moved him around on the power play as a result of that. He is not as comfortable with shooting. I think he has shown he is really good in a lot of other areas. It doesn't seem to be affecting his ability to handle the puck and pass the puck."

Matthews still produced a team-high 15 shots in the last three games and logged his usual big minutes during losses on Thursday (23:22) and Saturday (21:27)​ in Vancouver. 

"It's been all right," Matthews said. "I still need to progress a bit. We got some rest coming up next week so hopefully it just progresses and continues to feel better, but I'd definitely like to see it heal a bit."

The Leafs host the second-place Jets for three straight games on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before finishing the week in Ottawa on Sunday. After that game, the team only plays twice during  the next 10 days. 

"He is dealing with a couple of things," Keefe noted. "The mental effect that not being 100 per cent has on his game and then the fact that he has missed time. If you miss time, you lose your rhythm and it throws you off a little bit.​"

The finishing ability that allowed Matthews to rack up a ridiculous 18 goals in his first 20 games simply isn't there at the moment. 

"I'm still trying to find my rhythm," Matthews said. "Physically, my legs and lungs and everything felt fine, it's just getting my timing back."

Matthews failed to score in the two games before the latest injury absence so, overall, he has gone five games played without a goal. ​He hasn't lit the lamp since Feb. 20, which must feel like an eternity considering how regularly he scored to start the season. 

Matthews hasn't gone six straight regular-season games played without a goal since March 2019. ​

 

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The Leafs looked a bit worn down on Saturday as they played a fifth road game in eight days. The team travelled home on Sunday before practising at 1 pm on Monday. 

The first game back from a western trip can be tricky and the staff is doing what it can to guard against a letdown. 

"Some of it may be in our heads," said Keefe. "The actual stats and history of teams coming back from the West don't really show it to be too big of an issue, but it is something we are conscious of, for sure. We are trying to make as many adjustments as we can. Today, we practised later than we normally would just to allow for an additional hour for guys to adjust to the time change. We stayed the night in Vancouver and travelled back yesterday to try to keep our sleep cycles as normal as possible."

When the Leafs returned home from a four-game swing in Alberta earlier this season, the team swept a three-game set from the Canucks winning the first two games in convincing fashion. Although, in that situation, they had four days between games.

"It's one of those things where you have to put it out of your mind," said defenceman T.J. Brodie. "I feel like it's one of those things where the more you think about it, the more it affects you."

"Today's practice was really good," Keefe said. "We got lots of good work in with lots of good skating. That is an important part of it, too. Because of the steps that we have taken and what’s at stake as we go into the game tomorrow, we expect the guys to be at their best."

 

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Thornton refuses to say what inspired his nickname for William Nylander. During their time quarantining together before training camp, the veteran forward dubbed the 24-year-old Swede 'Willy Styles.'

"That's a little bit of a secret," Thornton said with a wide smile. "You'll have to wait a couple months. It's a nice nickname and I'm glad he's really going with it." 

Nylander liked the nickname so much he had it printed on his sticks. And he's been using those sticks quite effectively of late with five goals in the last six games. 

"He's been competing real hard," Thornton observed. "His work away from the puck has been great. He's been banged up the last little bit and he played through some stuff. Now, you can see him really dial things in."

Nylander didn't score in Vancouver, but had 11 shots on net in the two games. Linemate John Tavares is also getting in a bit of a groove with two goals and an assist in the last three games. 

"We're just, both of us, individually feeling a little bit better," Tavares said on Saturday night. "Seem to be moving well off the puck. We're doing a pretty good job in our own end for the most part and we're able to break out quick and have the ability to enter the zone with control or at least give yourself a good chance to recover pucks."

 

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The biggest development on the road trip may have been the play of the new third line featuring Pierre Engvall between Ilya Mikheyev and Hyman. That trio combined to produce an even-strength goal in four of the five games. They have now lined up together in the last six road games, but Tuesday will be their home debut. 

"It changes a little bit," Keefe said. "We are able to control the matchup a little bit better. When you are on the road, it is a little bit more of trusting them, putting them over the boards, and having confidence that no matter who the opponent counters with, we could be confident that they will do the job."

Keefe chatted with all three players together at the end of practice. 

"We may look to pursue different matchups at home now," he said. "Whether we started them in the D-zone on the road or if they were played in the offensive zone, they were able to do a lot of good things and make it hard on the opposition. We like a lot about the looks of the three of them. It is the first opportunity to really use it on home ice. I will get a chance to experiment with that a little bit."

At the start of the year, Keefe expressed a desire to ice a reliable third line with Alex Kerfoot at centre, but injuries up front led to plenty of tinkering early on. Kerfoot is currently lining up as a left winger with Tavares and Nylander. 

 

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Travis Dermott dropped the gloves with Edmonton's Josh Archibald​ at the end of last Monday's win over the Oilers. It ended up being more of a wrestling match and the next day, the 24-year-old got some pointers on fighting from defence partner Zach Bogosian.

"Bogo's obviously a big guy that is very comfortable in that situation," Dermott said of the post-practice workshop. "I just wanted to get a couple tips from him so if that happens then I'm prepared and at least able to protect myself in the right way. He's a guy who's taught me a lot on and off the ice."

Per HockeyFights.com, Dermott has two majors in the NHL while Bogosian has fought 20 times. 

What did Dermott learn from Bogosian? 

"Nothing too crazy," he said with a grin. "No knockout moves. It's mostly just how to protect myself so when I do get in that position I'm safe and don't feel completely lost." 

 

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Wayne Simmonds has started skating again as he continues to work his way back from injury. The gritty winger suffered a broken wrist on Feb. 6.

"The cast has come off," Keefe said. "He is able to do a lot more. My understanding is that the bone is healed. It is just a matter of him now rehabbing and getting his full function back, be comfortable handling and shooting pucks and things like that. He has been skating while we were away. He has been making progress in that area."

The initial timeline for Simmonds was six weeks, making his target return date March 20. 

"It is just a matter now of when he gets his strength back to be comfortable in doing the things he needs to do," Keefe noted. "He didn't practise with us today. We will see as the week progresses whether he joins us at all. It just depends on how he is responding."
Jack Campbell was on the ice at practice as he rehabs a leg injury, which was re-aggravated during a shutout win in Edmonton on Feb. 27. 

"Campbell had a real good day today," Keefe said. "He got through a lot more stuff on the ice in our practice. He continues to be day-to-day. We will have to see how he is tomorrow and how it affects whether he will back up or not. In terms of how the week progresses, I think it's just going to be a day-to-day thing, but today's practice was a real positive sign to have him up there with us.​"

Frederik Andersen will start on Tuesday. He is 10-0-2 with a .914 save percentage against the Jets. 

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Lines at Monday's practice: 
 
Thornton - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Engvall - Hyman
Vesey - Boyd - Spezza 
 
Rielly - Brodie 
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian 
Liljegren - Lehtonen
 
Andersen 
Hutchinson 
Campbell
 
Power-play units at Monday’s practice: 
 
Rielly 
Matthews - Boyd - Marner  
Thornton 
 
Brodie 
Nylander - Tavares - Spezza
Hyman