Skip to main content


Tavares embraces shutdown duties for Leafs down the stretch

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins skated at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Monday. 


Sheldon Keefe is leaning on John Tavares to take on the tough matchups for Toronto down the stretch. 

"In my experience, when John's been given a responsibility, particularly with matchups, he takes it very seriously," the Leafs coach said. "He's very committed to it. He respects the opposition a lot. When I say that, it's meaning that his decision making is really sound and that he won't push or overdo offence. He'll respect their game and make sure he's in good spots defensively. He tends to control the game a little bit better for us that way."

Tavares and his line got the better of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl when Edmonton was in town late last month. Since then, Keefe has used the last-change advantage at home to match his 33-year-old captain against top lines. 

"Just trying to make sure that you're making things difficult," Tavares said of his mindset. "You're being on the right side of the puck, and understanding the challenge of the opponents and what they do well and how that can fuel your game the other way. So not trying to sell all out offensively."

What does linemate Bobby McMann notice? 

"Just details," McMann noted. "He's always adamant about it. He always wants to be the best at it, and I think that's a reason why he's played so long."

Tavares has scored just once in eight games, but vows he won't be cheating for offence. 

"Obviously when the plays are there, you want to make them," he said, "but knowing that, over the course of a long game, you just want to continue to be on the right side of things and defending hard, winning battles, making sure they're coming through you, and you can earn good opportunities that way."

The return of Selke Trophy nominee Mitch Marner, who is now slotting in beside Tavares and McMann, makes the line even better suited for the shutdown role. 


ContentId(1.2101178): Tavares embraces shutdown role for Leafs; frees up Matthews


The tactical change by Keefe has allowed top-line centre Auston Matthews to exploit easier matchups. 

"We just tried Auston in a different look and feel," Keefe said. "A lot of times, he has to take that responsibility on and it's been a little bit different that way."

Matthews has nine goals in his last nine games and is meshing well with offensive-minded linemates Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi

"Even when we maybe have off shifts or off periods, just the ability to bounce back," said Matthews when asked what's working well. "All three of us like to communicate, talk on the bench, talk on the ice, and just go out there and compete. We just kinda compete every shift, every game, and obviously all three of us bring different things, different attributes and what we excel at. So we just try to use each other."

After a slow start in Montreal on Saturday, Domi and Matthews both scored early in the second period. 

"It looks like they're having fun," McMann observed. "It looks like they're just working hard. It's three guys that just compete for pucks, play hard, and then all three of them have really good vision, and then obviously Auston's been putting it in quite a bit."

Matthews is up to 64 goals. He has six games left to chase 70 goals. 

"It's crazy," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. "Looking at different years, big years from different guys, 70 just seems like a crazy number, but he could do it. It's amazing. It speaks a lot to the consistency that he's had. But, yeah, that's a crazy number."

Matthews needs just two goals to pass Alex Ovechkin, who scored 65 times in the 2007-08 season, and establish a new benchmark for active players. 

Crosby's career-high of 51 goals was set in the 2009-10 season. 


ContentId(1.2101177): Crosby on Matthews closing in on 70 goals: 'It's crazy ... he could do it'


The challenge for the Tavares line will be a tall one on Monday as Crosby is one of the hottest players in the league. What's the key against No. 87?  

"I don't know if the formula is always the same," said Tavares. "He's always continuing to evolve and, I don't want to say reinvent himself, but just continuing to find ways to get better."

Some things never change, though. 

"Obviously, we know how well he can protect the puck and make plays in traffic," Tavares said. "So, keep him on the outside and have to use a lot of energy just earning the puck back and doing things like that."

With 16 points in his last eight games, Crosby is tied for the NHL scoring lead since March 24. 

"Just trying to compete," Crosby said of his heater. "As a line, we're keeping it simple. We're not forcing things that aren't there. We're playing hard. I think everyone's playing the same kind of game regardless of line or production. Regardless of who goes out there, everyone's playing the same way and it's been a reason for our success." 

McMann admits it was "surreal" facing Crosby for the first time earlier this season. 

"It's always a special night when you get to play against that guy because he's still clipping at an incredible pace," said McMann. "Still finds a way to get it done. It's fun to watch him, but it'll be fun to beat him for sure."

The Penguins were nine points out of a playoff spot as recently as March 27. Crosby's hot streak has fuelled the Penguins on a 6-0-2 run and brought them within one point of the second wildcard in the Eastern Conference. 

"If you looked where we were two weeks ago, we probably didn't think we'd in this position to be able to be playing meaningful games at this point," Crosby said. "So, you know, we would've took it at that point. To be in meaningful games right now is big. Yeah, it's fun."

On Saturday, Crosby reached the 40-goal mark for the third time in his career. He joined Ovechkin (twice), Brendan Shanahan, Teemu Selanne, Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk as the only players 36 or older in NHL history to notch a 40-goal season.

"I don't think it's surprising in a lot of ways," said Tavares. "You're talking about the most accomplished player of this generation ... [he's] showing I think since day one of his career, the internal drive he has and how much he can will and influence a game and his teammates and his team."

"I run out of phrases to explain Sid's overall game, his contribution to helping the Penguins win," said coach Mike Sullivan. "He cares so much about winning. He cares a lot about the Penguins and the success that we have. He plays an inspired game. He's the heartbeat of this team, I've said this on so many different occasions, and he's certainly doing everything in his power to help us get to the playoffs."


ContentId(1.2101180): 'Belief is getting stronger': Crosby willing Pens towards playoffs


With Tavares tangling with Crosby, Matthews will likely see a lot of Evgeni Malkin and Pittsburgh's second unit. That line also features former Leaf Michael Bunting, who scored the game-winning goal on Saturday against Tampa Bay. 

"He's kind of dragged Geno into the fight, so to speak, down low in the grind game," said Sullivan. "Geno's getting inside with some of the goals Geno's scored lately."

Malkin’s 1.51 points-per-game average against the Leafs is his highest against any team. 

Bunting played with the Leafs the last two seasons and struck up a fast friendship with Matthews. So, how can the Penguins shut Matthews down? 

"I was cutting deals with him last night," Bunting said with a laugh. "Matty's having one heck of a year. It's fun to watch. He's shooting everything and it's all going in. So he's an exceptional player. I don't think anyone has figured that out yet, but hopefully we can tonight."

Bunting also caught up with William Nylander

"He was joking around with me, saying that he's ready to fight me any time I want," said Bunting with a smile. "That would be quite the fight."

Bunting likes to agitate the opposition while Nylander is more of a smooth operator on the ice. 

"I'll get under his skin," Nylander promised with a sly smile. 

"I'll be all over him tonight for sure," Bunting responded.


Nylander picked up an assist on Saturday and is now just four points away from 100 on the season. 

"I think that's a pretty cool goal to get," he said. "It's something that I think a lot of players want to try to get to so, I mean, if it happens, it happens."

Nylander would be only the fourth Leafs player to reach that mark joining Matthews, Darryl Sittler and Doug Gilmour. Nylander would be the first winger in franchise history to reach triple digits. 

Nylander's previous career-high was 87, which he set last season. 

"He's not just one of the guys, but a lot of nights he's been the player," said Keefe, who also coached Nylander in the American Hockey League. "That's great to see. He's done it more nights this year than I think he ever has. It shows up in the stats, but it also shows up on the video side of it. It's been great and fun to watch."

Keefe credits Nylander for helping the Leafs navigate a tricky start to the season when they had new players getting up to speed and some key injuries. 

Tavares, meanwhile, likes that Nylander is mixing it up more on the ice. 

"He plays a much more physical game than I think he was when I first came in," Tavares noted. 

"Maybe," Nylander said with a smile. "I mean, sometimes I guess I get in there, but it's something I could get better at."

Nylander believes his biggest improvement has been on the defensive side of the game. 

"As you grow older, I think every aspect of your game gets better and improves," the 27-year-old said.


ContentId(1.2101179): 'A pretty cool goal to get': Nylander chasing 100 points


The Leafs hope Marner's return will spark a slumping power play. 

"It's huge," Keefe said. "We really felt it when we didn't have him."

Marner, who missed 12 games before getting back in on Saturday, leads the Leafs in primary assists on the power play this season. 

Keefe pointed out that Marner being a righty is particularly important when entering the zone. 

"It just allows us to be a lot more fluid with our movement," the coach said. 

Marner's leadership ability is also important. 

"He's probably the most vocal guy that we have when it comes to the power play," Keefe revealed. "Whether it's pre-game and off the ice or when we get a power play on the way to the faceoffs, TV time-outs, whatever it is, Mitch usually is the guy that pulls the group together and gives them some direction and getting the guys focused in. Those are the little things that you don't necessarily see, but you definitely miss when he's not around."

Even before Marner got hurt, the Leafs’ power play was scuffling. They are just five for 54 in 19 games since Feb. 27. That 9.3 per cent conversion rate ranks dead last in the NHL during this stretch. 

On Saturday, the Leafs got one chance and failed to convert in Montreal. 

"We lost the faceoff off of it and that first unit only ended up with about 30 seconds in the zone," Keefe noted. "It was not a great time to get him back reintroduced ... We're hoping here now we can get some power plays the remainder of the way. We can get that group really going."

The Leafs spent significant time on the power play at Monday's skate. 

"With the plan that we have, Mitch is an integral piece of it," said Keefe. "We certainly missed him when he wasn't there." 


ContentId(1.2101190): Leafs Ice Chips: Marner will use voice and skill to spark PP


Ilya Samsonov was the first goalie off the ice and is expected to start again on Monday. The team's Masterton Trophy nominee stopped 24 of 26 shots to earn the win in Montreal. 

"I love Sammy," said Matthews. "I don't know, I can't say enough good things about him. And just his mindset, him as a person, he's a competitor in there, he's a gamer, and it's been a lot of fun to see him really just bounce back and excel and look like himself again. And you can just see it in his face and his body language, he's feeling really good right now and it's just great to see."

Alex Nedeljkovic is the confirmed starter for the Penguins. 


Defenceman Joel Edmundson, who sustained an undisclosed injury on March 24, skated with the Leafs again. 

"He's close," said Keefe. "There's a possibility for him this week. Not today or tomorrow, but if he continues to progress. He'll see the doctors soon to get that final assessment of where he's at. He's real close."

After playing in New Jersey on Tuesday, the Leafs host the Devils on Thursday and the Red Wings on Saturday. 

Defenceman Timothy Liljegren (upper-body) and winger Calle Jarnkrok (hand) skated before the main group. It's possible they return next week when the Leafs wrap up the regular season with games in Florida and Tampa Bay. 


Lines at Monday's Leafs skate:

Bertuzzi - Matthews - Domi 
McMann - Tavares - Marner 
Knies - Holmberg - Nylander 
Dewar - Kampf - Reaves
Gregor, Robertson 

Rielly - Lyubushkin 
Benoit - McCabe 
Giordano - Brodie 
Edmundson - Timmins 

Samsonov starts