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Leafs playing with confidence through six-game win streak

Toronto Maple Leafs William Lagesson Pontus Holmberg Auston Matthews William Lagesson Pontus Holmberg Auston Matthews - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs and Avalanche had the day off on Friday in Denver. 


Toronto's longest win streak of the season started in an unlikely way. 

Morgan Rielly was serving the first game of a five-game suspension back on Feb. 13 with the surging St. Louis Blues, who had won seven of eight games, in town. In the hours before puck drop, the Leafs learned that John Tavares and Mitch Marner were unable to play due to illness. 

"I was thinking about it," defenceman Jake McCabe recalled. "You talk about our stars, and a few of them were out sick."

William Nylander dressed, but wasn't 100 per cent. Auston Matthews played, but did not pick up a point. So, how did the Leafs win? 

"We played such a simple and north and heavy game, and fast and got on the forecheck," recalled McCabe. 

The Leafs held the Blues to just 15 shots in a 4-1 victory. It wasn't just a win. It was a recipe. 

"We've kind of continued that through here, through this stretch, and that's building an identity," McCabe said. "Building confidence within that structure has been really important for us and it's paying dividends."

Toronto followed up the win over the Blues with an overtime victory against the Philadelphia Flyers before routing the Anaheim Ducks last Saturday in Toronto. This week, the team has reeled off three straight wins on the road in St. Louis, Arizona and Las Vegas. 

Multiple players and coach Sheldon Keefe have credited Rielly's actions for motivating the group. The longest-serving Leaf confronted Senators rookie Ridly Greig for taking a slap shot into an empty net to seal Ottawa's win on Feb. 10. Rielly cross-checked Greig in the head – the defenceman said he didn't intend to hit the Senators forward so high, but the situation got away from him – which led to supplemental discipline. 

"When you've got a guy who's that important to the team, who leaves because he's sticking up for the crest, I think everyone just rallies around him," veteran winger Ryan Reaves said. 

Consistency has been an issue for the Leafs. Before this run, their longest win streak had been four games. Keefe suggested recently that his group only reached its potential in around half the games. 

"We have played good hockey over the course of the season, but we haven't put together a stretch like this," Keefe said. "That is what has been tremendous."

Thursday's win may have been the most impressive one during this streak. Playing on consecutive nights, the Leafs jumped all over the defending Stanley Cup champions in Vegas, building a 4-0 lead in the first period and winning 7-3. 

"When we have everyone going like that, we can play with anyone," said centre Max Domi, who scored twice. "Everyone sticking to the game plan, keeping it simple, staying disciplined, not taking penalties, and when we do that we just come at teams in waves."

This six-game win streak matches the longest for the Leafs since Matthews and Mitch Marner broke into the NHL in 2016-17. 

"Obviously our stars are confident in their game, but confidence can be fleeting in this league," McCabe said. "And when everyone's playing with confidence, like we are currently, it's a scary thing. And we just gotta keep it rolling here."

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Domi is quick to point out that Matthews is "driving the bus" for the Leafs. The superstar centre scored yet again on Thursday. He's up to 10 goals in the last five games. 

"He's so hungry every time he steps on the ice," Domi said. "I think that's just a mindset. He's got so much confidence right now. He's one of the best, if not the best player in the world right now and it's great to see."

Matthews is up to 52 goals in 55 games. 

"It's insane," Domi said. "Like, that's absolutely ridiculous. That provides a lot of energy for the group. When you have a guy like that who's just on fire, it's contagious. Everyone's so excited for him and excited to go out and help him."

If it's possible, the Leafs feel like Matthews may be a little underrated as he aims to become the ninth player in NHL history to score 70 goals in a season. He's currently on pace for 77.

"I don't know if it gets talked about enough, I just think he's just so smart," said centre John Tavares. "His ability to continue to find body position and open ice is just really elite and something that goes unnoticed. His ability to find open space and do it night after night is really impressive."

Teams are game planning for Matthews, but nothing is working. The Knights held Matthews in check until the third period when he made a nice pass to Pontus Holmberg on a rush up the ice and then slid between Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo before deflecting home the return feed. 

"Just always finds different ways to make it happen," Tavares gushed. "[Thursday] is a great example ... just the poise he shows on a rush like that, and gives it up to drive the net. Obviously a great play by Bergy, but just the subtle hands in front, things like that, just different ways he finds to score."

Asked about what Tavares said, McCabe opted to highlight a different area of Matthews' game. 

"I think he should be in the Selke [Trophy] conversation too, frankly," McCabe said. "I mean, the guy's stick is unbelievable. He's super responsible defensively. We go back for pucks and he's always there for an out."

Matthews hasn't finished as a minus player in a game since Jan. 16 in Edmonton. Among NHL forwards, he's tied for fourth overall in takeaways. 

"He plays a complete 200-foot game," McCabe said. "That gets overshadowed with the goal scoring."

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Matthews is the headliner, but the 26-year-old had a lot of help on Thursday night. Every line got on the board against a Knights team that was playing without forwards Mark Stone, Jack Eichel, Brett Howden and William Carrier

"It takes a significant chunk out of their depth," said Keefe. "It felt like our depth could be a real factor. You had a pretty good feeling that if our guys could get going, they would have a good chance to make a real impact in the game. That is how it worked out."

The Leafs feel like a deeper group since Keefe shuffled his middle-six forward lines this week. Tavares, who is skating between Bobby McMann and Nick Robertson, scored even-strength goals in Arizona and Vegas. Those tallies represented his first 5-on-5 goals since Dec. 11. 

"Starting to get a better feel for each other," Tavares said. "You know, we didn't have any practice time when we got put together. I played with Robby a little bit over my time, but really no time with Bobby. Starting to get a better feel for each other and what our strengths are and how we can read off that and make plays when they're there, earn pucks back, carry momentum, carry play, so good things to build on."

McMann has piled up seven goals and three assists during this six-game run. The day before the streak started, he skated as the extra forward at practice and expected to be a healthy scratch.  

"I was on the ice for two hours that day, because I wanted to put the work in," said McMann, who focused on improving his shot and getting more comfortable making plays on his backhand. "I wanted to get better, because obviously I wasn't at a point where I was showing that I was competing hard enough or playing well enough and that didn't sit quite well for me. That's something that challenged me a little bit and I responded well."

McMann responded with a three-goal performance against the Blues and hasn't looked back since. 

"I think can be a consistent contributor," the Wainwright, Alta. native said. "I've always thought that, but you have to earn your way too. You can't just assume that's going to happen and I've been earning it more and more."

The undrafted 27-year-old is a late bloomer. Saturday will be just his 43rd NHL game. 

"A lot has changed for him in about two weeks time, but the league is tough and the challenge to sustain that is difficult," said Keefe. "If you look at any of the guys in his situation whether it's Holmberg or Robertson or [Noah] Gregor or these kind of guys that are competing for the same ice and same type of roles, they’ve each had really good runs for us, but consistency is a challenge, so I would say that is the biggest thing for Bobby." 

McMann, who cleared waivers after training camp and started the season in the American Hockey League, is older than Robertson (22), Holmberg (24) and Gregor (25). 

"At his age his runway is probably even shorter than others," Keefe noted. "So, just stay with it and try and get in that groove and stay in that groove."

Gregor was a healthy scratch on Thursday. 

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Domi has moved into Tavares' second line spot between Tyler Bertuzzi and Nylander. He produced his first multi-goal game as a Leaf on Thursday. 

"Both goals kind of the result of the guys I was out on the ice with," Domi said. "Willy, he loves getting to the net like that and then finding the weak side. And, to be honest, if you watch the replay, it was almost like my controller froze for a second because I had a wide open net. Bert was giving it to me a little bit because I was looking to give it back to him backdoor and that's why I ended up shooting it ... So, that was all Will there and great net-front presence by Bert."

Domi took advantage of a miscommunication between Chandler Stephenson and Brayden McNabb at the Leafs blue line to grab a loose puck and score on a breakaway in the second period.  

"He has been great," said Keefe. "He has been working."

Domi, best known for his playmaking ability, produced a season high five shots against the Knights. 

"He scores great goals for us, but his checking defensively coming back, tracking, getting back above the puck, and using his speed and tenacity to close plays defensively have been tremendous," Keefe said. "That is going to allow him to continue to play a role in a situation like that. When he is skating and competing at that level, he can play against anybody in the league."

Domi is second among the team's forwards in giveaways per 60 minutes (2.45), but teammates are highlighting his responsible play. 

"I really liked the way he was playing without the puck," said Tavares. "The way he was skating, working to get it back, and working to kill their transition play or when the puck changes hands, a really good job defensively."

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Holmberg scored a goal and added the assist on the Matthews marker on Thursday night. Matthews passed him the player-of-the-game belt in the dressing room. 

"This guy has just been making plays all week," Matthews said. "Bergy, great game."

Teammates cheered and a few called for a speech. 

"Good job today boys," Holmberg said sheepishly. 

The native of Vasteras, Sweden is still working to improve his English. 

"It's tough," he said. "But sometimes I'm more comfortable. In this situation (looking around at the television cameras) I'm not so comfortable."

Holmberg smiled.  

"You understand," he said. "But I learn every day, so I hope this comes to be better." 


Lines in Thursday's game: 

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

Brodie - Liljegren
Rielly - Lagesson
Benoit - McCabe


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