Knies will make NHL debut after whirlwind run
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who held a media availability at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Fla., on Monday. The Florida Panthers held a full morning skate ahead of tonight’s game.
Matthew Knies will make his National Hockey League debut on Monday.
"Actually wasn't the plan initially, but Sam Lafferty in addition to Calle Jarnkrok, is unavailable today so we had to move up his plan," said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. "Great opportunity for him to get right in. It hasn't been ideal circumstances in terms of his travel and even [today] with medicals and all these kind of things, but ideal circumstances passed us by long ago so here we are."
Knies played in the NCAA national championship game on Saturday in Tampa. He travelled back to Minnesota after his Golden Gophers lost a heartbreaker in overtime. Knies then signed an entry-level contract with the Leafs on Sunday before returning to Florida. It's been a whirlwind for the 20-year-old left winger.
"Maybe that's tiring for him and maybe less thinking and less time to worry about things," Keefe said. "Just go out and play and have fun. Our mindset for it is just to give him an opportunity here to get comfortable in the league with as little time as we have left. He's a great prospect and a player we're very excited about. We'll just give him a chance to play and get him as comfortable as possible as quickly as possible."
The Leafs have three regular-season games remaining. Toronto also plays Tuesday in Tampa and Thursday in New York.
Knies will start Monday's game on a line with Noel Acciari and Alex Kerfoot.
"It's important that I try and get him some less difficult match-ups and just allow him to get out there and get comfortable," Keefe explained. "I've got him lined up with Acciari and Kerfoot, two veteran guys that talk a lot and know the structure and are very reliable defensive players. There'll be some movement there with 11 forwards tonight."
Lafferty is "unlikely" to play on Tuesday, per Keefe.
"Just something tightened up after practice yesterday and through travel," the coach explained.
Jarnkrok skated on Monday morning for the first time since a nagging issue flared up during last Thursday's game in Boston.
Ilya Samsonov will start against the Panthers. For the second straight game, Toronto will be forced to dress a backup goalie, who is on an amateur tryout. Per Leafs media relations, the league has determined the Leafs are not eligible for a cap-exempt goalie recall.
"Not a question for me," Keefe said. "I don't have the details on that. I know the focus really for [general manager] Kyle [Dubas] and [assistant general manager] Brandon [Pridham], especially for this game, is icing the best possible lineup with who's available for us. We look at it as an opportunity to play a game against a team that's looking to secure a playoff spot and it's going to be an intense and competitive game. Also, it's a game that has meaning in the standings for multiple other teams in the league so we felt this one was an important one to ice the best possible team and that's what Kyle and Brandon have been working towards. The goaltending stuff has been unfortunate with how that's played out with injuries and Jarnkrok and Lafferty just the same, but we'll have a group ready to go tonight."
Owen Sound Attack goalie Nick Chenard signed an ATP and will dress as the backup on Monday.
Matt Murray remains unavailable with a head injury.
My understanding is that it was deemed the #leafs created the "emergency" conditions that would necessitate the use of the Roster Emergency Exemption, which is why they weren't permitted to bring in an AHL backup for tonight's game in Florida.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) April 10, 2023
Florida coach Paul Maurice is expecting a stiff challenge from the Leafs even though Toronto is locked into the second seed in the Atlantic Division.
"They're going to play real hard," Maurice predicted. "I don't think they're taking their foot off it right now because they're prepping for something and it's something that they want to be right on. That first round gets talked a lot about in Toronto so they want to be right and ready for that. So, I think they go fast and they go hard. A skilled team sometimes not having as much pressure on them makes them even more dangerous because they can make those plays. They're not missing the playoffs if they force something in the middle but if it goes it goes so we expect their best and we expect we’re going to have to play our best game of the year."
The Panthers got a day off on Sunday and Aaron Ekblad spent it watching The Masters. Believe it or not, he was cheering for Brooks Koepka.
"I actually bet on him to win the tournament, but didn't work out," the defenceman said with a smile. "He came in after a win in Orlando on the LIV Tour and just felt I had a chance there to make some money."
Ekblad wasn't smiling on March 25 when he committed a turnover that led to a New York Rangers goal and was taunted by Koepka, who was in the stands holding a pylon.
"He texted me after and apologized and I'm cool with it," Ekblad said. "That's part of being intense and maybe he had some money on the game ... at the end of the day it's sports and we all get intense sometimes."
But Ekblad had to be upset initially, right?
"I mean, sure, at the beginning, maybe a little bit," the 27-year-old admits. "He did what he did and he apologized and holding ill will against somebody and holding negativity in your body is never a good thing."
Since then Ekblad is on a seven-game point streak and the Panthers have won six straight to move into the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
"Bad play against New York," Ekblad recalled. "Hold onto it for the night, think about it, think about what you can do differently and then you move on and pick yourself off the mat. I think since then ... [I] have changed the way I play."
What's he doing better right now?
"Just trying to get pucks to the net on the power play," he said. "Trying to hold onto the puck and make plays and not give anything away."
So, maybe Koepka's taunt actually served as a turning point. Maurice has another theory.
"Confidence is so important to every player and he had come off the power play and understood it," the Panthers coach said. "Like, he wasn't fighting for it. He knew it wasn't there for him and when he went back out he's been a different player in terms of his focus shooting pucks and pounding it to the net and you start to feel good. It relates to his whole game. When he was off the power play, he didn't touch the puck as much because you don't get those power-play touches and then I thought in some ways he played a quieter game because of that. Goes back out on the power play and now his game isn’t quiet anymore."
Maurice's believes the key moment for Ekblad came in Toronto on March 29. The Panthers had lost four straight and trailed the Leafs 2-1 late in the third period when they got a power play. Ekblad took a shot, which was deflected in by Sam Reinhart. The Panthers haven't lost since.
"It started out with broken sticks," Maurice said. "He went on this run of breaking his stick on every shot for about two weeks and then he took a little bit off his shot for a while. It’s funny triggers that go. He got into Toronto and he hammered the first one out and the next one we scored on and that, for me, was the turning point."
Alex Lyon has started all six games during Florida's win streak, posting a .956 save percentage.
"He's incredible, man," said Ekblad. "His confidence in there is unwavering and our confidence in him is unwavering as well."
Lyon will get the start again on Monday.
Erik Gustafsson picked up three assists on Saturday in his first game since March 23.
"He is a very confident guy," noted Keefe. "He has a high skill level. He is very smart. He has good sense. He has missed significant time, so you don’t know how that is going to affect a guy — especially a guy who is new to our team. But it definitely was important for us to get him in. As it turned out, he got a lot of touches. I thought he did a good job at both 5-on-5 and on the power play."
The defenceman had been away from the team on a personal matter.
Projected Leafs lineup for Monday's game:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Tavares - O'Reilly - Nylander
Knies - Acciari - Kerfoot
Aston-Reese - Kampf
McCabe - Brodie
Giordano - Holl
Rielly - Liljegren