TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practiced at the Ford Performance Centre before travelling to Detroit on Friday for Saturday night’s game against the Red Wings.
Auston Matthews is setting the tone for the Leafs with his play and, more and more, his voice.
"He's really transformed into a leader in this locker room," observed veteran forward Jason Spezza. "His daily habits have always been exceptional, but he's having conversations away from the group. He's having conversations at the right time in the dressing room. He's also pushed us at times to be better. He's just got a great mind for the game and we're starting to see it now in the dressing room."
Captain John Tavares and alternate Morgan Rielly, the longest-serving Leaf, are at the centre of the leadership group, but the 24-year-old Matthews, who's in his sixth NHL season, is now taking on a bigger role.
"He's got a great pulse," Spezza added. "He knows when maybe it just wasn't our night and you have to move on quickly. It's good to have a fresh take on things sometimes and he's been able to give that."
Sheldon Keefe has noticed Matthews speaking up more during games.
"In general, you hear a lot more chatter from him and his linemates," the coach noted. "You see him on the ice before shifts and before faceoffs grabbing guys and taking charge more at different times."
The Leafs have yet to win a playoff series since Matthews broke into the league and Keefe senses a growing urgency within the team's leading scorer.
"You just hear more from him," Keefe said. "He had been a very quiet player once he comes back to the bench in the past. We have seen him progress in that area. He is just taking on that increased leadership role. I think he recognizes where he is at within our team, where he is at in the league and what he wants our team to accomplish. He has taken charge of it."
And of course Matthews continues to lead on the ice with his consistent and determined play.
"If you get in Auston Matthews' way these days, he is not stopping," Keefe said. "He is driving right through you, he is going to keep his feet moving and he is going to push you off the puck. That is just a great sign. We talked about his leadership and that is an area where has really done that."
The emergence of Matthews as a vocal leader is one reason why Spezza believes the Leafs have been able to take an important step forward so far this season.
"We've been able to identify the areas we're slipping in and be mature about approaching them and knowing we have to fix them," Spezza said. "That's allowed us to be consistent as a team. We've had a much more mature approach to our game. Even when we're winning games, but we're maybe not playing our best hockey, we've addressed it. There's been a big step maturity-wise that way. Some of our young leaders have really found their voices and really taken control and are driving this team."
Despite a strong effort on Wednesday with the Leafs outshooting the Anaheim Ducks 44-21, Matthews wasn't entirely happy during his post-game analysis.
"Maybe we could do a better job of getting to their net and having a presence, especially with the level of goaltending they had in there," the centre said.
Matthews produced two assists while firing seven shots on John Gibson in the Leafs’ 4-3 shootout victory.
After missing most of the first half of the season with a groin injury, Petr Mrazek produced his best performance as a Leaf last Saturday stopping 27 of 28 shots in a win on Long Island.
"It was tough the first half of the year," he said after only his fifth game of the season. "I was hurt for a long time so I'm trying to build momentum."
The Leafs want to help him do that and so the former Red Wing will get the start on Saturday in Detroit.
"We are going to need Petr a lot coming up," Keefe explained. "For the New Jersey back-to-back that is coming early next week, we know we need Petr. We just thought getting him this game better prepares him for that versus having an even longer stretch in between games. We think trying to get him into a little bit of a rhythm is important."
Michigan native Jack Campbell, who has an .864 save percentage in his last five games, will start on Monday at home against the Devils before Mrazek gets back in on Tuesday in New Jersey.
Timothy Liljegren left Wednesday's game in the first period after falling awkwardly in the neutral zone and banging his head on the knee of Trevor Zegras.
"It was a weird sequence," he said. "I had a lot of speed and was trying to get the puck down [the ice]. The puck jumped over my stick and I lost my balance."
The 22-year-old defenceman was surprised that he was assessed a penalty for tripping on the play.
"I actually didn't know that, but I got told afterwards," he said before cracking a small smile. "I guess I tripped him with my head. That was a weird call, I think."
Looks like Liljegren was clipped in the head after falling from this shot— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 27, 2022
Hope he's alright pic.twitter.com/jIR8z6gZhS
Liljegren was back on the ice on Friday skating alongside Travis Dermott on Toronto's third pair.
"I have no symptoms at all," Liljegren said. "I felt good in practice today."
Liljegren is expected to play on Saturday against the Red Wings.
Jake Muzzin participated in part of practice on Friday, but remained in a red no-contact sweater and will miss a fourth straight game with a concussion.
"Muzzin has continued to progress," said Keefe. "He was out there again today going through a good portion of our practice. Both he and the medical team are not comfortable with where he is at right now to put him into games. He will not make the trip to Detroit."
Wednesday's game marked the debut of a new forward alignment with Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner on different units. Matthews played with Michael Bunting and Ondrej Kase while Marner slotted in beside Ilya Mikheyev and Tavares. Those lines have played together in the past. The one line that was truly new featured Nylander and Alex Kerfoot beside the defensive-minded David Kampf.
"We had a couple chances," Nylander said. "I mean, we didn't get out too much. There was a lot of power play and special teams stuff, but the times we were out there we had a couple really good chances."
"Kampf is an easy guy to play with in that you can trust and rely on him defensively," said Keefe. "He is going to do a good job of helping you get out of your end and get you on offence. We are going to continue to look at it, but the early signs were encouraging."
Kampf and Nylander played together for seven minutes and 30 seconds at even strength against Anaheim. The Leafs and Ducks both produced three shots on net in those minutes, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
"They had one really good sequence in the second period and a really great scoring chance with Kampf out front," Keefe noted. "That really stood out to me."
Keefe should get a better sense of how the experiment is going after Saturday's game.
"In doing all of this with moving the lines around in the way that I did, it was with the intention that the line was not always going to be intact," the coach pointed out. "We were going to be moving some people around. We are going to be on the road in Detroit, so we might do a little bit less of that without being able to control the matchups with last change."
At the end of practices, Nylander will often do a couple sprints from blue line to blue line. Lately, some teammates have joined him and created a bit of a competition.
"Just to keep the legs going," the Swede said. "Sometimes I just need a little refresher to go full speed. It's good to do that sometimes after practice and it's fun that the guys jump in to make it a race."
The race: Muzzin 🆚 Nylander 🆚 Clifford pic.twitter.com/hN6I6hyoAI— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) January 25, 2022
For the first time this season, the Leafs produced three power-play goals in one game on Wednesday. But it wasn't all positive vibes for the top unit after the win.
"We leave with a bitter taste in our mouth by just giving up that goal," said Tavares.
After scoring their third man-advantage marker during a five-on-three chance in the second period, Keefe called timeout to give his big boys a chance to rest with 68 seconds remaining in the power play. Despite a flurry of chances, they couldn't sneak another puck past Gibson.
Jakob Silfverberg got out of the box just as the Ducks got possession back and headed up ice. That created an odd-man rush and gave Silfverberg a clean look at Campbell, which he converted to bring the visitors back within a goal. Anaheim then tied the game in the third period.
"Things were working really well," Tavares said. "We had good pressure again trying to find another one. We were really in sync, in rhythm and reading really well off one another and then we give that one up. Even though we played well, we leave it to one chance, which they ended up finding a way to get one in the third. We got to find a way to make sure we're detailed all the way through and not taking our foot off the gas and understanding the circumstances of the game."
Keefe was willing to give his players a pass.
"They overdid it at the end," Keefe said after the game. "I'll own that one."
One of the four forwards needed to change to get a second defenceman on the ice.
"That is something the second unit is accustomed to doing," Keefe noted, "getting off the ice before something like that happens. I failed to point that out to our guys to be mindful of that. That is on me. That group, in particular, is not used to being out there at the end of the power play when it expires. I will own that one there. Our power play, obviously, was tremendous."
The Leafs enter Friday's games with the best power-play percentage in the NHL (30.6).
Spezza, who has just one assist over the last 10 games, slammed his stick over the boards in frustration during a power-play drill on Friday. It hasn't been a great run of late for Toronto's oldest player and Toronto's fourth line.
"It's been a rough 10-game stretch for us in terms of carrying play, but I know when we're at our best the team needs us and we can control play against other fourth lines," the 38-year-old said. "We're smart enough guys to know that we're not happy with where we're at. The good news is there's lots of hockey left to be played and we know how to get back to it."
Spezza has been a minus player in four of the last 10 games, including on Wednesday night when a Pierre Engvall clearing attempt deflected off him and into the Leafs net.
"Heading into the second half of the year, and as we start playing more hockey, all the good teams play four lines and we have to be reliable," Spezza said. "We'll find our game and get moving and make us a better team."
There was reason for optimism for Spezza on Wednesday as he opened the shootout with a goal.
"Maybe scoring in the shootout will give me a little confidence," he said. "The puck hasn't gone in during the last stretch, but little things like that show that it's in there. You're never going as good as you think you are and you're never going as bad as you think you are. Little moments like that can help and, for me, as a player, I like the pressure of it ... I love the pressure of just getting a chance to step up there. Even if I've sat around for a little bit, it gives you confidence to know that you trust your instincts and trust your game where you can go out and execute a move."
Jason Spezza beats Gibson to start the shootout pic.twitter.com/i5YbUdtUYg— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 27, 2022
Keefe likes to send out Spezza first in the shootout in order to get Matthews and Nylander, the next two shooters, more rest after the three-on-three overtime.
"I'll go wherever he wants," Spezza said with a chuckle. "If he thinks leadoff is the right role, I'll go. If he wants me to go 20th, I'll go 20th. He's got a good pulse for what's going on and it's my job to be ready when called upon."
The Leafs have had three shootouts this season. Toronto won Wednesday and on Jan. 11 in Vegas, but lost on Dec. 4 in Minnesota. In that game against the Wild, Spezza got hurt late and wasn't available for the shootout.
Lines at Friday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Kase
Mikheyev - Tavares - Marner
Kerfoot - Kampf - Nylander
Engvall - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Sandin - Holl
Dermott - Liljegren
Muzzin - Dahlstrom
Defenceman Carl Dahlström has been assigned to the Maple Leafs taxi squad from the Toronto Marlies (AHL).— Leafs PR (@LeafsPR) January 28, 2022
Defenceman Alex Biega has been reassigned to the Marlies from the Maple Leafs taxi squad.
Power-play units at Friday's practice:
Flanks: Matthews, Marner
Bumper/net front: Tavares, Nylander rotating
Flanks: Spezza, Mikheyev
Net front: Bunting