Matthews’ momentum propelling Leafs towards playoffs
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Florida Panthers.
For the first time all season, Auston Matthews has posted three straight multi-point games.
"His confidence is so high right now," gushed goalie Ilya Samsonov. "I see in the practice today too. He's moving great. Yeah, he's got a good shape right now. This perfect. This is perfect timing for us and for him."
After a season full of questions about his health and underwhelming production, Toronto's top-line centre is heating up. Matthews scored twice on Thursday in Florida and also potted a pair on Saturday in Raleigh. Matthews tied a franchise record with 15 shots on net against the Carolina Hurricanes, who are allowing the fewest shots per game this season.
"He's on his game," said left winger Michael Bunting. "He's shooting at will and playing confident with the puck and showing his elite skill. It's nice to see."
"Just the pace that he's playing with both ways," observed coach Sheldon Keefe. "The way his feet are moving. And then just his strength in the battles and his willingness to engage physically. He's not running around finishing checks or anything like that, but he's engaging on every puck and either winning the puck or disrupting the play enough so the next play becomes one that's winnable for us."
On Sunday, Matthews didn't score but he did help set up two goals. The line of Matthews, Calle Jarnkrok and Mitch Marner controlled 99 per cent of the expected goals against the Nashville Predators, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
"I just feel like we're connecting really well through all three zones, finding each other and recognizing when there's a play to be made and getting it to the guy who has speed and a little space," Matthews said.
The 25-year-old is flying all over the ice. Is this a result of him finally getting up to speed following a knee sprain at the end of January? Maybe it's the chemistry with Jarnkrok, who joined the top line seven games ago?
"Maybe a little bit of both," Matthews said. "We've been meshing pretty well. We want to keep that going and not get too far ahead of ourselves and make sure we're still playing the right way and being responsible in our end and taking care of pucks, which I think we've been doing a pretty good job of especially the last two, three games."
Keefe feels the team elevated its play during the final three games of the recent road trip and Matthews is a big reason why.
"It makes everybody better," the coach stressed. "Since I've been in this job, I've talked to Auston about his ability to impact the team in ways far greater than just scoring goals or producing offence. I think the best players impact the team and make their teammates better and not just those that they play with ... not only are your teammates feeding off your energy and momentum from watching you play but now you're leaving the game in a better spot than you found it and that's what being a great player, to me, is about. And Auston has that ability perhaps even greater than any of our guys, in particular, with the role he plays as a centre."
Matthews won't come close to replicating last year's 60-goal season, which culminated with a Hart Trophy, but he's setting the tone ahead of April's crucial playoff rematch against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"We just want to continue to put our foot on the gas and not take a breath these last couple weeks of the season," Matthews said. "Try and dial in every aspect of our game and keep it rolling."
Matthews has a chance to put on a show for his parents this week. Dad Brian and mom Ema watched practice from the stands on Tuesday.
"It's always nice to spend time with them," Matthews said. "I haven't seen my mom in a little while so it means a lot. They're amazing and support me all the time. It's just nice to have a couple days this week to really spend some time with them and relax a little bit."
Marner added another trick to his seemingly bottomless bag on Sunday. The winger headed the puck soccer style to Matthews to set up a 2-on-1 rush.
"That's fully intentional," Marner told reporters in Nashville. "I knew what I was doing there. I tried to just advance the puck. I didn't really see a play to try to get that puck. I know their D are trying to be aggressive and want to use their hands so gotta use the head sometimes and it worked."
The play even caught his teammates off guard.
"I had to take a second look," Matthews said with a smile. "He was chuckling when we got back to the bench and asking us if we saw it and it was pretty obvious, you know, his whole head movement. Yeah, it was just a cool play and just thinking outside the box. It almost worked out. You gotta tip your hat, the goalie made a pretty nice save there, but the creativity and willingness to pull it off is pretty special."
Samsonov has rejoined the team after leaving the road trip last Wednesday to be with his wife, who gave birth to the couple's first child – son Miroslav – last week.
"Probably the best week in my life," the 25-year-old beamed. "A lot of emotion. A lot of [being] nervous but, I mean, good nervous before he's born. Last four days we stay all together and at home is unbelievable. I feel perfect. When he comes on my skin, you feel so warmy. He's so cute."
Samsonov stares down the best shooters in the game, but he didn't want to witness the birth.
"The doctor said, 'You want to see?' I said, 'No, no, no. Just call me after.' The time I see him first is shock a little bit, but a good shock."
Did he cut the umbilical cord?
"It's not for me," he said. "I'm so scared."
Samsonov did get on the ice a couple times while the team was away. He worked with Jon Elkin, who is part of the team's player development staff.
The time off from games allowed Samsonov to fully heal an injury he had been playing through.
"Five days I stay here with doctors and we working with my injury," said Samsonov, who declined to reveal the nature of the issue. "I feel perfect. I don't feel hurt anymore. I think I'm 100 per cent."
Samsonov says he's "back on track" and is actually sleeping well.
"Right now we sleep in a different room, me and my dog, he's smart too," Samsonov said with a smile. "He wants to sleep too, a little bit."
Samsonov allowed six goals on 28 shots during his last start on Long Island.
"Certainly, there's a lot less on his mind," Keefe said. "He's enjoying the early days as a dad and now it's about adjusting to that new life and getting back into his regular routine."
With six minutes left in the third period on Sunday, Bunting came to the bench after a shift and Keefe started to talk to him. Bunting didn't acknowledge the coach immediately so Keefe started tapping the winger on the shoulder. Bunting briefly glanced back and then quickly looked back out onto the ice as Keefe continued to talk for a few seconds before walking away. Bunting did not play another shift in the game.
"I'll leave that between Keefer and I, but what I will say is Keefer and I have a good relationship," Bunting said. "We've known each other for a very long time and, yeah, there's not really much to see there ... He's one of the reasons I came to Toronto. We'll leave it at that."
"It's a non-issue for me," said Keefe. "For me to expect a player coming right from the heat of a battle to sit on the bench and then be a true gentlemen when I want to go talk to him, I'm putting myself at risk going into that situation ... I give players a lot of leeway and a pass, essentially, especially those that come right off the ice."
Keefe also coached Bunting from 2013 to 2015 when both were with the Soo Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League.
"We know one another," Bunting said. "He knows how to coach me and he knows how I am and what kind of player I am. So, like I said, I wouldn't really look much into that. Yeah, just another day."
"He got the message," Keefe said. "I understand and I know that he hears me. I don't overthink those kind of things especially on the bench and in the heat of the moment."
Keefe gave Bunting a huge opportunity last season by playing him on the top line with Matthews and Marner. That trio was among the most dominant in the league and Bunting finished with 63 points and a Calder Trophy nomination.
This year, though, hasn't gone as smoothly and Bunting has seen his playing time decline of late.
"I've talked to him at length about some defensive things that are really important," said Keefe.
The coach felt John Tavares and William Nylander needed a defensive stabilizer on their line so Alex Kerfoot replaced Bunting on the second unit for the game in Nashville.
"I'm happy to play anywhere, to be honest," Bunting insisted. "First, second, third, or fourth line, I want to help this team win. It doesn't matter where I am, I'm going to play my game and I'm going to bring it every single night. That's what I plan to do. I'm happy wherever I am."
Bunting played with Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty on Sunday. That could be a really annoying group to play against, but more chemistry is required.
"We have to read off each other more and know who's going in and who's going to be the high guy, because I feel like all three of us want to just get in there and try to hound on that puck," Bunting said. "It's been one game and we'll learn from one another."
Bunting has just two goals and two assists during 13 games this month. One of the goals came on a 5-on-3 power play on Thursday in Florida.
"Bunts' game has really improved here in the last week to two weeks," Keefe said. "He's making lots more plays. He's skating better. To me, it looks like he's playing with a freer mind and looks to be finding his game again."
Acciari sustained an undisclosed injury late in Sunday's game. He missed practice, which left the Leafs with only 11 healthy forwards. So, University of Toronto Varsity Blues forward Owen Robinson, a criminology major from Orangeville, Ont., was brought in and skated alongside Bunting and Lafferty.
"Robby was great," Bunting said with a grin. "Probably a little nervous coming into practice, but he had a great practice."
Acciari will miss Wednesday's game against the Florida Panthers and is listed as day-to-day. Toronto will dress seven blueliners once again with Timothy Liljegren expected to draw back in after being a healthy scratch on Sunday. Liljegren is minus-4 in 10 games this month, which is the worst mark among the team's defence.
"I want Lily to focus on the fact that he's been an excellent defenceman for us all season long and there's a little bit of adversity here now and we want to help him through it," said Keefe.
After missing the start of the season due to hernia surgery, Liljegren emerged as a feel-good story for the Leafs. The 23-year-old Swede stepped up in a big way when Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie joined Jake Muzzin on the injured list in November.
"He's had a terrific season for us and taken tremendous steps towards being an every-day player, a reliable player," Keefe said. "He's been a real key for us at different times this season when we've really had to lean on him."
After the Leafs added Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson at the deadline, the competition for playing time on the back end intensified. Liljegren was a healthy scratch in two games after Schenn and Gustafsson arrived and has struggled to get back in a groove.
"The challenge for Timothy now, and other defencemen on our team, is the situation has changed," Keefe said. "We've added additional depth. At times we've played seven so there's a lot to manage there and it can be more challenging for a younger player that hasn't been through such a situation. My messaging to Lily is this is a little bit adversity in terms of the situation changing. When the playoffs begin that in itself is some adversity and things change. The atmosphere and the environment changes, the pressures change so the ability to handle all these types of things are really important for all our D, especially the younger ones who haven't been through it as much."
Liljegren played the first two games of the series against the Lightning last year before being a scratch in the final five games.
Gustafsson remains away from the team for personal reasons.
Ryan O'Reilly took part in a skills session on Tuesday, but left the ice before the main practice.
"Just to continue to ramp him up," Keefe said of the plan moving forward, "and make sure that things respond positively both as he's shooting more and handling pucks more. And then also just making sure he's safe in terms of minimizing risk for re-injury. So, that's really it. Today he didn't practise, but he did everything but take part in practice. He got a lot of work in individually himself before we even got out there."
O'Reilly sustained a fracture to the index finger on his left hand during a 4-1 loss to the Canucks in Vancouver on March 4. He underwent surgery on March 7. The initial timeline for his return was announced as four weeks, which would be next Tuesday (April 4).
"I would call him unlikely to play this week, but I know that hasn't been ruled out necessarily," said Keefe. "I think the plan is more to ramp him up through this week and look more towards next."
The Leafs play in Ottawa on Saturday before returning home to face the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.
Sarnia Sting winger Ty Voit finished second in OHL scoring with 105 points this season.
"Consistency is something I tried to stay on top of a little bit," the Leafs prospect said of his success. "It was a thing I battled with last year. Being able to go night in and night out instead of taking a night off or something like that, that's the big thing."
Voit, who stands 5-foot-9, 151 pounds, spent more time in the gym last summer to beef up physically. He embraced meditation to help the mental side of his game.
The Pittsburgh native, a fifth-round pick in 2021, also received a boost from Toronto's development staff. Throughout the year he did video sessions with Rich Clune. What did they look at?
"I find sometimes when you're close to the wall, in tight, you get your feet a little planted," Voit said. "It's about being able to plant your feet but then also get them moving again once you're already slowed down and then finding little areas to escape out. And also finding more ice with crossovers. That's been a big thing."
The Sting open the OHL playoffs on Friday against the Guelph Storm.
Lines at Tuesday's practice:
Jarnkrok - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Bunting - Lafferty - Robinson
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Simmonds
McCabe - Brodie
Rielly - Schenn
Giordano - Holl
Timmins - Liljegren
Special Teams work at Tuesday's practice:
Rielly, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares
Giordano, Jarnkrok, Kerfoot, Lafferty, Bunting
Rielly, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, Bunting