The Maple Leafs practiced at Ford Performance Centre on Friday ahead of their game on Saturday night in Nashville.
Auston Matthews has been a finalist for the Lady Byng Trophy the last two years. The Leafs centre has only been whistled for 33 minor penalties in 390 NHL games despite facing tough match-ups and playing big minutes. And, before this week, Matthews had never received supplemental discipline. So, in his first media availability since receiving a two-game suspension for a cross-check to the neck of Buffalo's Rasmus Dahlin, Matthews did not hide his displeasure.
"I was a little bit disappointed," the 24-year-old said. "A bit more than I was expecting. I recognize, as a player, I have to be in control of my stick. Obviously, my intent was never to catch Dahlin up high, but I did. I made a mistake and I recognize I deserve some sort of punishment. I just thought that two games was a lot."
Matthews had a phone hearing with the National Hockey League's Department of Player Safety on Monday and learned his fate a few hours later.
"That was my first time ever experiencing one of those things and I don't really know what else to say about the whole experience," Matthews said. "There's always going to be two opinions or multiple opinions. I saw it a certain way and, obviously, they saw it a different way. It is what it is. I'm happy to be back. It's been a long week, but I'm excited to be playing tomorrow."
Matthews has only drawn eight penalties this season despite leading the league in goals, but insists that's not a source of frustration.
"I'm pretty composed in general so that stuff doesn't really bother me," Matthews said. "I know my job is to go out there and play hockey and I can only control so much."
Matthews seems more concerned about his rhythm being interrupted. He had scored in five straight games (eight goals) before the ban.
"It's tough," he admitted. "You're playing every other night and then you sit for almost a full week. It's been nice being able to skate and work with some of the development guys and just kind of keep in good shape, but there's nothing like playing in games and getting in there. I sense there'll be a little bit of rust."
Michael Bunting, respectfully, disagrees.
"He still has it in practice," Bunting said. "He's still pulling off all his moves. I'm sure he's going to be fine. Maybe one shift he'll be off, but I don't think so. He's going to be right into the groove again."
Matthews will need to be sharp to get the better of Roman Josi. The Predators' captain leads all NHL defencemen with 72 points this season.
"He's just elite in so many different aspects out there and he drives play for that team," said Matthews, who shares an agent with Josi. "He jumps into the play. He skates extremely well and his hockey IQ, I find, is next level. He's a fun guy to watch and to play against him is never easy."
Matthews returned to his regular spot between Bunting and Mitch Marner at Friday's practice. John Tavares filled in admirably on the top line in two games this week (one goal and two assists), but coach Sheldon Keefe always planned to return to the pre-suspension look.
"That line had been going so well," the coach noted. "I don't think it would be fair to Auston, frankly, with the way that he was playing, for him to come back and then have things changed on him. The fact that we got a look at John in that spot is good and healthy for us. It's maybe something we can go to down the line. In this case, with Auston coming back, I think it makes sense to go back to what was working for him."
Keefe believes that the unwanted break may actually help slingshot Matthews down the stretch.
"There is something to be said for the rest that comes with it and filling the tank that way," Keefe said. "He also had some time to work at his game, work at his shot, and all of those kinds of things that you don't have the time to do when the schedule is like it is. There are some benefits to it."
The Leafs won both games without Matthews in large part because rookie Erik Kallgren played well between the pipes.
"He doesn't get rattled in there," Matthews observed. "He's a quiet guy, but you can see he's got that fiery, competitive nature to him and that when he goes in he expects a lot out of himself. He just exudes confidence. He doesn't have to tell you or voice that, it just shows when he's in the crease."
Kallgren's strong play has helped stabilize, at least for now, Toronto's goaltending situation. Starter Jack Campbell is out with a rib injury and had been struggling to regain his All-Star form before getting hurt. Back-up Petr Mrazek has stumbled badly in his recent starts and owns an ugly .884 save percentage. Enter Kallgren, who had never played in the NHL before being called up from the American Hockey League last week.
"It's not easy to just step in and be solid right away, especially in this market, with what's been going on the last couple months," Matthews said. "So, we just want him to continue doing his thing."
Kallgren will make a third straight start on Saturday.
"He plays confidently," said Keefe. "He plays at the top of his crease. He is square to pucks. There are times when some rebounds and stuff are staying alive, but he is finding ways to get to the next puck. He is seeing the puck well through traffic. Those are all signs of a confident goalie who is just trusting his instincts, his abilities, and what he has trained all of these years for."
"Positionally, he's just always there and in the right spots," said defenceman T.J. Brodie.
Kallgren has never been to Nashville. This will be his first road game in the NHL. But, so far, nothing has fazed the 25-year-old.
"It's been one of the most eventful weeks of my life," Kallgren said after the 3-2 win over Carolina. "A lot going on. It's surreal, but I just try and enjoy it."
Kallgren finally caught up with his parents via FaceTime on Wednesday. They are back home in Sweden and recently tested positive for COVID.
"It was a bit emotional," Kallgren said. "I haven't seen them in eight months now. It's been a while. I miss them."
Kallgren's ability to stay focused amid all these emotional moments has been key to his success. After Thursday's game, Keefe said he wasn't sure he'd seen Kallgren smile during this remarkable run.
"I am sure there are some smiles going on there," the coach said with a grin on Friday. "I talked to him after the game very briefly last night. He was pretty stoic. He is keeping his emotions in check. I am sure — or at least I hope — that he is enjoying this. He certainly should be. He and his family should be enjoying it. At the same time, there is a professionalism and a business-like attitude that is keeping him working. I thought he really worked in practice today. He was strong and solid again. That is just another step in the process for him to continue to earn the confidence of himself and the group. To come back out today in practice and battle and keep the puck out of the net again is really good."
Seattle Kraken defenceman Mark Giordano is No. 5 on TSN's latest trade bait board and Toronto is a potential destination. Does that raise the eyebrows of Brodie?
"Maybe a little bit, but until anything happens it’s all hearsay."
Brodie was partnered with Giordano during his time with the Calgary Flames.
"I can't say enough good things about him," Brodie gushed. "He's a great guy on and off the ice. Just his dedication and work ethic, he's unbelievable."
General manager Kyle Dubas has said that he's looking to add on defence ahead of the deadline.
Travis Dermott, who may be on his way out if there's a shake up, was not available to the media on Friday despite being requested. After sitting out the last three games as a healthy scratch, it looks like the left-shot defenceman will draw back into the lineup on Saturday. He skated alongside Rasmus Sandin on the third pair at practice.
Saturday will be Toronto's final game before the deadline.
"It's always a weird time," Matthews said. "You never really know what to expect. When it gets down to crunch time, that's when all the trades and stuff start to swing around, but that stuff is out of our control. Dubie and management and the staff will handle that and we'll see where it goes."
Entering Friday's games, the Leafs ranked fifth overall in points percentage (.680).
"I think everybody in here is confident in our group and likes our group," said Matthews. "Through the ups and downs of the season we've bounced back and regrouped well when things haven't been going our way or haven't been going well and these challenges make you better off in the long run."
David Kampf and Ondrej Kase missed Friday's practice, but will play in Nashville.
"They're both fine," said Keefe. "We just felt they could both benefit from a day [off]. It's not even injury related. It's more just rest."
Lines at Friday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Robertson - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Engvall - Simmonds
Clifford - Kerfoot - Spezza
Rielly - Lyubushkin
Brodie - Holl
Sandin - Dermott
Muzzin* - Liljegren
*Wearing a red no-contact sweater
Power play units at Friday's practice:
Flanks: Matthews Marner
Middle / Net front: Tavares & Nylander rotate
Flanks: Mikheyev, Spezza
Net front: Bunting