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Rielly ready to return; Leafs embrace defence-by-committee approach


The Maple Leafs held a meeting at the Ford Performance Centre in Toronto on Tuesday. 


Morgan Rielly is available to return to the Leafs lineup on Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, coach Sheldon Keefe confirmed. The team's top defenceman missed the last four games with an upper-body injury, which was sustained on March 24 during a game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"It's nothing major," Rielly said of the injury. "Nothing I really want to get into. It's about trying to take your time and make sure you're right for playoffs."

The Leafs decided not to hold a practice on Tuesday, so Rielly will return to game action without having had a full team skate.

"It's challenging," the 30-year-old admitted. "It takes a lot of hard work, but we have a great staff here to help. I think it's a good exercise and a good opportunity to learn."

Rielly hit the ice on Tuesday alongside winger Mitch Marner, who is recovering from a high ankle sprain.

What impact does the lack of practice time have on the injured players?

"They don't get the benefit of having those extra reps and being as close to a game as you can get in terms of what you can replicate in practice," coach Sheldon Keefe said. "They don't get the benefit of that, but it doesn't impact our decision-making in terms of their availability. It is just on them to manage it and maximize what they can get out there."

Marner has been sidelined since March 7 and is expected to miss a 12th straight game on Wednesday.

"I haven't had a chance to discuss [it] with him since he's come off the ice," said Keefe. "I think with him we're just going to feel it out and talk to him and likely make it more of a target for the weekend."

Last week, Keefe mentioned that Marner required "further participation in practice" before returning to game action. The next scheduled practice is on Friday. The Leafs will wrap up the week with a game in Montreal on Saturday.

ContentId(1.2098404): Rielly ready to return for Leafs; Marner likely targeting weekend


The Leafs also cancelled a practice last week following a disappointing home loss to the New Jersey Devils.

"The group has responded when we've [prioritized] rest," said Keefe. "In particular I look at last week, at a time when we didn't like anything about the New Jersey game and how that went, and opted for rest and a meeting, the team responded very well in that moment."

Toronto bounced back with a big 5-1 win over the Washington Capitals last Thursday.

Following Saturday's win in Buffalo, the players enjoyed a day off on Sunday. Keefe then made Monday's morning skate optional. Usually the team holds a full skate after a day off. Most of the players participated on Monday morning, but Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander and David Kampf opted for additional rest.

The Leafs jumped out to a 5-1 lead against the Florida Panthers on Monday night and held on to win 6-4 thanks to two Matthews goals.

"We've felt like the more rested team in the games we've played here of late in terms of the jump and energy that we have," Keefe said. "We're trying to capitalize on that as best we can this time of year. We just think it's important to bank these days now to ensure we're rested and fresh. Starting Saturday we're going to go into five games in eight nights and you can't control that schedule. Right now we have a little bit more control about how we handle that and the rest piece seems to help our group." 

Tavares and Nylander both took the ice for some extra work on Tuesday. Tavares stayed on the pad where Marner and Rielly were working out while Nylander went over to the Marlies sheet to do a solo session.

"We told him he couldn't skate with us because he's got his own program," Rielly said with a grin. "He had to find his own ice."

Nylander carried out four extra sticks. He lay three of them flat on the ice around the faceoff circle in the neutral zone and he had one stick propped against a puck bag. He also set up pucks around the offensive zone for additional stick-handling drills. 

"He's got his process and he works extremely hard at it," Rielly said. "It's clearly been something that he's improved over time with and he's spent a lot of time tweaking, and he's got it to a point now where it's working."

ContentId(1.2098445): Leafs Ice Chips: Keefe cancels practice, but Nylander sticks to his program


Matthews passed the team's player-of-the-game belt to defenceman T.J. Brodie following Monday night's win.

"He was great," Matthews said. "On the penalty kill, breaking up plays, he's got such a long stick, and I thought he was just really sound for us. The PK's been a night-and-day difference over the last couple games, which has been huge, and he's a big part of that."

Brodie also set up Matthews' first goal. 

"He made an unbelievable play to me as well," Matthews said. "I just thought he played really, really well."

Brodie logged 23 minutes and 42 seconds against the Panthers, which is the most he's played in the five games since returning from being a healthy scratch.

"He's been great," said Rielly. "I thought he played well last night. He's a great teammate. He's been working extremely hard."

ContentId(1.2098413): 'This guys' twig was unbelievable': Matthews passes Leafs' belt to Brodie


Rielly leads the Leafs in average ice time this season while Brodie, despite his struggles, is second. But the Leafs don't plan on leaning on one guy or one defence pair too much in the playoffs.

"A by-committee approach allows you to spread out the minutes and responsibilities," Keefe said. "It also keeps everybody in a regular rhythm. There are some positives that come with it. There is the confidence that the coaching staff shows in the players to go out and play against anybody. When healthy, I think we are going to be in that situation where we can trust guys to play in different spots. Because of the injuries we've had, almost every single guy on our team, at different times with our defence, has had to play against top competition to help us get through tough situations. So, that gives the coaching staff confidence, which you can then pass along to the players."

After acquiring Joel Edmundson and Ilya Lyubushkin ahead of the deadline, the Leafs appeared content to simply roll three pairs and not worry about matching up against top lines.

"With the skill sets and experiences we have within our D core, we can deploy them that way," Keefe noted. "I don't think there is a clear pairing that you would say needs to absolutely play in this situation. I think the group is optimized where they are sharing the responsibility, and then the forwards have to be connected to it as well to do the job."

Edmundson (lower body) and Timothy Liljegren (upper body) are currently out week-to-week due, which has led to some fluidity with the defence pairs.

"What we like is that we have options," said Keefe. "We have nine players on defence now who have all done a good job, played against good teams, and helped us win games and have been flexible in who they have played with and what their roles have been. That gives us lots of options. The time we have left will help us make the appropriate decisions."

ContentId(1.2098405): Can Leafs really make a run with a defence-by-committee approach?


The Leafs killed off all four Florida power plays on Monday night. Toronto has been perfect on the penalty kill – 14/14 – over the last four games.

"We changed a little bit," goalie Ilya Samsonov said before breaking into a smile. "I don't want to say a lot of good words because, you know, it's working."

Toronto is now up to 22nd overall in penalty-kill percentage (77.6). The team is now adopting a more aggressive approach and pressuring faster on the half walls. Keefe admits the tweaks to the system were overdue.

"We're just second guessing less," said winger Bobby McMann. "We're making good reads. We're reacting rather than thinking too much. We're just reading off each better. We're anticipating, feeling free to go chase pucks and go put pressure on them, and that's rushing the other team."

The revamped penalty kill will face its biggest test yet on Wednesday as the Lightning own the top power play in the NHL. Tampa Bay is clicking on 29.3 per cent of their chances this season.

"PK's going to be imperative again," McMann said. "That's going to be a focus for us, and staying out of the box. If we are killing, making sure that we're hard on those guys and hard on their top people, because those guys are driving their team."

Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL with 47 power-play points. Steven Stamkos is tied for third overall with 16 power-play goals.

ContentId(1.2098412): Samsonov gets superstitious when asked about Leafs' improved PK


Matthews is up to 62 goals with eight games to go.

"He's an unbelievable player," said winger Nick Robertson. "You know, Hall of Famer. I really hope he gets to 70. It'd be something special to witness."

No one has scored 70 goals in a season since Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny during the 1992-93 season.

"I think he can do it," said Kampf. "Everyone wants to help him to achieve this."

It would help if the power play gets cooking again. Toronto failed to convert on three chances against the Panthers.

"We are just off and we have played against some terrific penalty kills," said Keefe. "That is an outstanding penalty kill on the other side over there."

The Leafs are now 0/14 over the last five games.

"We've been chasing it here," Keefe acknowledged. "It is not just Mitch being out. It is Morgan out. It is Liljegren out. We are into [Conor] Timmins, who is trying to find his way while everyone else is off. We are just chasing it a little bit here. We have to get that rectified, clearly."

Matthews leads the team with 15 power-play goals, but hasn't scored on the man advantage since Feb. 21.

"Not too concerned, honestly," Matthews insisted. "I think you have some personnel switches and stuff like that, but I mean, I think in the end it's not really about Xs and Os. It's kind of just executing, communicating, and simplifying some stuff. 'Cuz obviously, as you get down the stretch, teams pressure, they play tight. The pretty seam plays aren't exactly there right off the hop and you gotta kind of break them down with simple plays to start. I just think we gotta kind of get in the rhythm and simplify some stuff, get into the net, and go from there."

ContentId(1.2098411): 'Hall of Famer' Matthews' pursuit of 70 goals is fuelling Leafs


Robertson pulled off a beautiful breakaway move on Sergei Bobrovsky to open the scoring on Monday.

"You kind of look at the pre-scout with the goalie, what his tendencies are, and I have just a couple moves to go to and I just picked the right one, I guess," the 22-year-old said. "I was going deke. I just know he plays really low. He's a very good goalie, really quick, so fortunately it went in."

Robertson's line also produced a goal in the second period when Pontus Holmberg set up Matthew Knies.

Knies, a 21-year-old rookie, also earned accolades for confronting the bigger Niko Mikkola following a hit on Holmberg that appeared to be interference, but went uncalled.

"Wanted to set the tone for the game," Knies said of his first period roughing penalty. "It was necessary for me to step in there ... I just wanted to give him a little payback, because I didn't like the hit."

"It's good standing up for Holmer there," Robertson said. "I just love our line. I just love seeing that."

But the night ended on a down note for the line, which features the team's three most inexperienced players. They were on for two goals against in the third period.

"I don't think we played structured enough in the third," Knies admitted glumly. "I kind of let the door open for Sam [Reinhart]. I don't think it was a good effort from our line, but the guys stepped up and got the job done at the end of the night."

Keefe benched the line after the Reinhart goal, which brought Florida within 5-3 and opened the door to a frantic finish.

"It was partially about just going with other guys that could get it done for us," Keefe said. "But, also, you've given up two goals in the third period and now confidence starts to wane a little bit and all of that. For young players, you got to sort of protect them in that moment as well."

"We tried so hard to be in the right spot," Robertson said. "We kept talking about our D-zone all game, making sure it's right. That was just an unfortunate part. I don't think it was anything like we were clueless. We were in the right spots. It was just kind of a tough, tough bounce. But we continue to work on that and clean that up on our line. We're doing well and getting chemistry offensively and we want to clean that up defensively and I think we'll be good."

Keefe revealed that he purposefully put the line in tough spots throughout the game in an attempt to aid their development. 

"They were doing well in that regard early in the game and then in the third it didn't go as well," Keefe said. "Not all on them, there are other elements to it, but you want to give those guys continued chances to grow and in some cases protecting them is part of that."

ContentId(1.2098435): Robertson keeps scoring but Leafs' 'Kids line' still working to earn trust


Lines in Monday's game:

Bertuzzi - Matthews - Domi
McMann - Tavares - Nylander
Knies - Holmberg - Robertson

Dewar - Kampf - Reaves
Brodie - Lyubushkin
Benoit - McCabe 
Giordano - Timmins

Samsonov starts