Have the Leafs shown so far that they can overcome their playoff shortcomings?
TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at the SAP Center in San Jose on Thursday ahead of Friday’s game against the Sharks.
Nick Ritchie was once again among the last players on the ice after Leafs practice. After workouts at home, he'll usually spend time with the team's player development staff. On Thursday, it was head coach Sheldon Keefe offering some one-on-one tutoring. The focus was on changing the angle of his shots.
"Sheldon knows that stuff as well," Ritchie said. "He helped today. He doesn't do that all the time because there's other guys to do that, but on the road those people aren't here."
Ritchie has not scored through 21 games this season.
"We'd like him to score and he is capable of it," said Keefe. "I believe strongly that once he does score, it is going to open up for him. I think he is a guy who is capable of scoring big goals for us at big times. I think that is going to come. We have to continue to support him through this."
Ritchie was not among the 11 Leafs to pick up a point in Wednesday's win, but teammates went out of their way to praise him afterwards. Specifically, they highlighted his screen on Jonathan Quick ahead of the Jason Spezza power-play goal.
"Just an unbelievable screen," said Auston Matthews. "It's tough to beat Quickie one-on-one when he's seeing it."
Okay they need to keep mic'ing Auston Matthews up— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) November 25, 2021
His reaction to the Spezza goal was awesome pic.twitter.com/wiFbF4Bors
Late in the blowout win, Leafs players appeared to be doing their best to try and set up Ritchie. The Orangeville, Ont., native finished the night with three shots on net.
"He's had a lot of great opportunities," said Mitch Marner. "It's hard when that's not falling your way especially for a player of his talent and calibre. So, just make sure we we stay on him about sticking with it and letting him know it is going to come. He's done a lot of great things for us especially these past couple games being around the net and making it hard on goalies. His time's going to come."
"The support of his teammates goes a long way," said Keefe. "He needs to get support from the coaching staff as well to help keep him focused on other things. I do think he has done good things."
Ritchie leads the Leafs in hits. On Sunday in New York, Ritchie was effective on the forecheck and made a nice touch pass to David Kampf, who then fed Ondrej Kase for an insurance goal against the Islanders. That secondary assist represents Ritchie's only even-strength point this season.
After scoring 15 goals in 56 games with Boston last season, Ritchie didn't receive a qualifying offer from the Bruins and signed a two-year, $5-million deal with his hometown team. He got the first look in the first-line spot vacated by Zach Hyman, but it didn't click and Ritchie was soon demoted.
"Last season, he was on a career-high pace," Keefe said. "He is coming into this group here and he wants to make a mark. You can just imagine what he might be going through mentally. I think he has handled it very well ... We have been winning a lot of games so I think that helps reduce some of the pressure."
"I had good chances the last little while," Ritchie said. "A couple more last night in the third and one real nice one at the end. We're winning a lot of hockey games and that's the focus. If I get a goal that would be nice, but winning's more important."
During this road trip, Ritchie has started both games on the third line with Kampf and Kase. Both players are questionable for Friday's showdown in San Jose.
Kampf left Wednesday's game in the first period after taking a high hit from Rasmus Kupari. He was held out of the rest of the game as a precaution. The 26-year-old was back on the ice at Thursday's practice.
"It was a good day for him," said Keefe. "We will see how he is tomorrow when he wakes up and comes to the rink. We'll call it a game-time decision, I guess, but it was a very positive day for him."
Kampf has made a big impact on the Leafs this season allowing Keefe to build a reliable checking line, which neutralizes top opposition and soaks up defensive-zone starts.
"He's brought stability to our group," observed veteran forward Jason Spezza. "Stability through the middle of the ice. He plays the right way. He's a very unselfish hockey player. He's a team player. He's a great kid off the ice. He's an extremely hard worker. You guys don't see the work he puts in in the gym."
Kase missed practice on Thursday.
"It is a maintenance day," said Keefe. "We will see how he is in the morning."
Kase plays an aggressive game and was described as a "kamikaze fighter" by teammate Wayne Simmonds on Wednesday morning. While admirable that style of play takes its toll on a guy.
"He has been through a lot with how he plays," said Keefe. "We will give him a good day today for things to settle for him and take it from there."
Michigan native Jack Campbell has plenty of be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
"So much," the 29-year-old said. "My family, of course. I'm spoiled with them. And just playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. My team. My teammates. Yeah, it's just incredible."
Campbell can also be thankful for a bit more rest. He was absent from Thursday's practice as the team continues to manage his workload. Joseph Woll will start on Friday.
"It is not so much even missing the game tomorrow," Keefe said, "it's taking a day like today — an additional day off the rest of the team doesn’t [get] — and what that can do for his body and his mind. We think it is equally important to find these types of days."
Campbell has gotten parts of practice off, but rarely stays off the ice entirely. Oftentimes he will do some work with goalie coach Steve Briere and then depart. On Thursday, he didn't hit the ice at all.
Campbell leads all NHL starters in save percentage (.943) and games played (17). The team wants to keep him in a rhythm without overworking him.
"It is a challenge," Keefe acknowledged. "I don't know that there is any real threshold there that you say is too much or the right amount. It is knowing that you do have to give him time. That is just the fair thing to do and the smart thing to do knowing how long the season is."
The Leafs planned to go with a tandem system this year, but Petr Mrazek has only played in two games due to a groin injury. He was able to get through a full practice on Thursday and is getting closer to a return.
The Leafs have won 12 of their last 14 games and scored a season-high six goals on Wednesday, but there's no plan to reward the guys with a day off during this California road trip.
"We've really just tried to stay in our routine and stay really businesslike," the coach explained. "We've tried to be very purposeful on this trip, in particular, to stay in a rhythm and a routine. We looked at maybe scheduling a day off [today or Saturday], but we just felt on a trip such as this where the weather is nice and there are some distractions and things, [it's best to] just keep the guys busy and keep working."
The players don't seem to mind. Many stayed out for extra work after Thursday's 30-minute practice wrapped.
"Winning is very fun," said Spezza. "It makes a fun atmosphere around the room. It makes practices fun. When you're winning, it seems like everybody's feeling good. Definitely, our team is coming closer together as a group and gained a lot of chemistry through these wins. It creates a belief. We're winning close games. We're winning games the right way. Special teams have been good and that's usually details. And I think it leads to a happy group and you want to keep it going. When you're winning you want to keep it going, because when you lose a few it's hard to get back in the win column. We know that. We've been there already this year. So, we want to keep the positivity rolling."
After playing in New York on Sunday, the team travelled to Los Angeles on Monday. It was not a day off, but the players didn't take the ice.
Matthews was called for boarding Kings forward Blake Lizotte late in the first period on Wednesday. Before the second period began, the Lady Byng Trophy nominee made a beeline for referee Trevor Hanson.
"I didn't think it was a penalty," Matthews said. "I wanted an explanation. I thought I was just finishing my check. I know he happens to be a little bit of a smaller guy [5-foot-9, 170 pounds] compared to me [6-foot-3, 205 pounds], but I wanted an explanation as to what he saw so I could maybe learn from it. I don't hit many guys. I don't throw the body around too much. Yeah, I don't know."
Keefe didn't like the call either.
"He takes a lot of those kinds of hits," the coach noted. "Guys key on him."
Auston Matthews with a crushing hit on Blake Lizotte. pic.twitter.com/1n9VubwtwW— alberto (@twistedleafs) November 25, 2021
While the Leafs didn't care for the call, they loved seeing the physicality from their No. 1 centre.
"When he's doing that, obviously, as a line and a team we know he's really engaged in that game," said Marner. "It's good seeing him do that."
Matthews is producing 2.57 hits per 60 minutes so far this season, which is down from a career-high of 3.05 last season.
"It's awesome to see him throw his weight around," said linemate Michael Bunting. "He's a big boy and real strong out there. I notice that when he gets into the corners he's able to win pretty much every puck battle."
Lines at Thursday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Ritchie - Kampf - Simmonds
Engvall - Semyonov - Spezza
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren