Are the league-leading Leafs actually the best team in the NHL?
The Maple Leafs held a full skate on Wednesday morning. The Senators held an optional skate.
John Tavares has just one goal in the last 10 games, but head coach Sheldon Keefe is staying patient with the Leafs captain.
"You can tell he's fighting it a little bit right now," Keefe acknowledged. "While production offensively is down a little bit here, goals against while he's on the ice have been down ... When you give up less defensively, you don't actually have to score as much offensively."
Tavares has only been on the ice for five goals against in five-on-five play this season (0.3 per game). Last season, Tavares was on the ice for 54 goals against (0.86 per game) in five-on-five play, which was the most among Toronto's forwards.
"I just see him being above the puck a lot more," Keefe observed. "In 50/50 situations where a player has to make a decision ... I see him erring on the defensive side."
Of course, the Leafs will eventually need more offence from Tavares and linemate William Nylander, who has failed to produce a point in the past five games. The pair have combined for just four even-strength goals on the season.
"We magnify things here and the expectations are high," Keefe said. "Those guys are capable of more and they know that, and we know that, but there's been a lot of good things happening in terms of how they've been contributing to a team that's gotten off to a very good start."
Toronto sits atop the league standings in points (24) and Keefe likes the progress the group has made defensively with Tavares setting the tone.
The hope is the addition of Zach Hyman to Toronto's second line will help get that group going offensively. With Joe Thornton returning from injury on Monday, Hyman shifted to the Tavares line.
"I thought it was good in the start," Hyman said. "We had tons of chances early on, as did our team, in the first couple periods. And then, obviously, in the third it wasn't our greatest period or our team's greatest period, but we have things to build off of from last game. I'm excited to get back at it with those guys."
The Leafs didn't hold a practice or media availability on Tuesday, but they did meet to go over video and address what went wrong in Monday's shocking collapse against the last-place Senators.
"When you get a loss like that, the way that it went down, you don't want to let it fester," Keefe said. "We've been slipping a little bit and I think it just kind of caught up with us. It was situational-awareness-type stuff. We've just got to be more responsible and recognize what's happening in the game and manage it better."
Keefe saw the team starting to lose focus last week in the final game of a three-game set against the Vancouver Canucks. There were more warning signs in Saturday's 2-1 loss to Montreal, which also featured a blown lead.
The priority tonight is crystal clear to the players.
"Just getting rid of our sloppiness," said alternate captain Mitch Marner. "The amount of turnovers we had were unacceptable. We kept them around the game the whole time and gave them life, so we talked about that. We got to control the puck more, keep it in our hands more."
Frederik Andersen and Tavares both turned the puck over in the final seconds of the second period with the Leafs up 5-1, which led to a Nick Paul shorthanded goal giving the Senators life. Then the Leafs surrendered an Artyom Zub breakaway goal moments after the Ottawa rookie escaped from the box in the first minute of the third period.
I, for one, welcome our new hockey overlord. Artem Zub.https://t.co/UHD4CeyCpj— Travis Yost (@travisyost) February 17, 2021
"It was a funny game in the sense that you gave up six goals, but only one of them [really] came at five-on-five," noted Keefe. "It just goes to show on the situational stuff we have to manage it better. Essentially, two shorthanded goals against are unacceptable."
The Senators also scored a goal just after a double minor to Hyman expired. Evgenii Dadonov then scored a six-on-five goal to tie the game before adding the winner in three-on-three overtime.
The Senators now own the most wins (10) against the Leafs during the Auston Matthews era, which started in 2016-17. Montreal and Tampa Bay have nine wins against Toronto in that stretch.
"We know they're a team that works extremely hard," Hyman said, "especially when they play us, they seem to have an extra chip on their shoulder."
"In the third period we did a lot of things really, really well," said Senators defenceman Erik Gudbranson. "They were starting to grip their sticks tight when we got that third goal, and we took advantage of that. We did a good job of putting them under pressure and forcing them to make mistakes they didn't want to make."
But the Senators weren't thrilled with their game either and, like the Leafs, are aiming to tighten up tonight.
"We gave them six odd-man rushes, which is probably the worst we've given up here in two years maybe," coach D.J. Smith said.
"You could probably make an argument that the first two periods were two of our worst this year," said Gudbranson. "But we didn't give up and that’s a huge lesson to be learned."
Marner and Matthews have taken their chemistry to a new level.
"Our communication on the ice has been very good this year," Marner told TSN in a pre-game interview during Monday’s broadcast. "Coming out of our zone we've been talking a lot and trying to find each other. When we're coming out of our zone with the puck in our hands we feel we can get through the neutral zone and that's when we're at our best."
One bright spot amid Monday's collapse was the play of Toronto's top line. Before the game, Marner noted that he had spent a lot of time talking shop with Thornton during the veteran's 10-game injury absence. And the chemistry between Marner, Matthews and Thornton was evident on Toronto’s first goal.
Marner entered Ottawa's zone while weaving between three Senators players.
"The patience he has with the puck, it’s something to watch," Thornton said during an intermission interview. "I knew Auston was going to be over there eventually. Mitchy just took his time, drew some guys in and Auston was all alone and Auston's not going to miss those."
What did Matthews see?
"Unbelievable play by Mitchy just to buy some time in middle of the ice and draw a couple guys in," Matthews said. "Then he just hit Jumbo with speed on the outside and we even had one of our d-men [Zach Bogosian] in there too, so I tried to pull out and find a lane so he could make a pass and he just feathered a beautiful pass to me and all I had to do is put it in the net."
Matthews leads the NHL with 13 goals and has scored in nine of his past 11 games played.
"When he gets it, it's in the net," Thornton observed. "It’s very, very fast."
What's the biggest challenge for a goalie?
"Biggest challenge? I don’t know," said Ottawa's Matt Murray with a grin. "He's just such a threat in a lot of ways. Same with Mitch. The two of them together, and now with Joe on that line too, they're just really dynamic, really dangerous. Mitch is a really great passer, playmaker. Obviously, Matthews is a great shooter and a really good playmaker in his own right too. I don't think I can really answer your question in terms of what the most dangerous threat is. I think they're just a great tandem and a great line and great players individually. You got to be on your toes against them."
Murray is ready to return from an upper-body injury and will start one of the next two games against Toronto.
Per Murray's point, Matthews also set up Thornton for a goal in the second period on Monday.
"He brings an unbelievable energy on the ice and off the ice and it's a special time playing with him," Matthews said of the 41-year-old.
Thomas Chabot was matched against the Matthews line on Monday and admits the Senators were way too deferential to Toronto's big boys.
"We gave them a lot of room in the neutral zone," Chabot said. “They're a team that wants to feed off their speed and when you look back at the plays, they were on top of us. We didn't have much time to break the puck out, especially for me as a defenceman, they were really on top of us, two guys at all times. We'll try and cut them off. If we can find a way to cut their speed off, it will give us more time to break out the puck and get control of it better."
Tim Stützle played a career high 19 minutes and 41 seconds on Monday, including the first shift of three-on-three overtime.
"Well, when you're down goals, he's as dangerous as anyone in the league," Smith explained. "He can skate. He can make plays. But, also, he's getting way better defensively, especially in the neutral zone, and I just felt comfortable putting him out there. He looked like he was building confidence as it went on."
The third-overall pick in October’s draft set up Drake Batherson for Ottawa's first goal and is feeling more comfortable with each passing game.
"Yeah, definitely," he said. "I try to learn as much as I can, especially defensively, I think can be much better ... Last game, especially, we had some good chances to score. I like playing the last minutes."
Smith, a former assistant coach with the Leafs, had some high praise for the 19-year-old German during an appearance on TSN 1050's OverDrive.
"It’s easy when you got a coachable kid," Smith told hosts Bryan Hayes, Jeff O'Neill and Jamie McLennan. "He reminds me a lot of Mitch Marner in the way that Mitch was good away from the puck and Timmy, [Monday] night, was probably one of our best guys in the neutral zone. I said to someone after the game, 'Timmy Stützle is playing the first shift of overtime and Mitch Marner, at the same age, was playing for the London Knights.' So you got to put this all in perspective as to how good I think this kid can be."
Defenceman Erik Brannstrom returns to the Senators lineup after missing the past four games due to injury.
"The league's best team and best offensive players so if you can hold your own against these guys you're ready to take on the NHL," Smith said.
The 21-year-old Swede, who stands just 5-foot-9, was reunited with Gudbranson at Tuesday's practice.
"One of the first times I met him, I was on my skates and he wasn't wearing his skates so there was a little bit of a size difference there," the 6-foot-5 Gudbranson said with a chuckle, "but for a kid who's that size, he’s incredibly brave and plays the game hard. He likes puck possession. He's a smart player and he's been a pleasure to play with it. He just puts his nose down and goes to work and he's played extremely well with me and I'm lucky to get a shot with him."
Brannstrom has one assist in three games this season.
Christian Wolanin will be a scratch tonight.
Acquired in a trade with Carolina on Monday night, forward Alex Galchenyuk is expected to hit the ice for the first time as a Leaf at Thursday's optional morning skate. Keefe has reviewed some video of the 27-year-old forward to get a better sense of his game.
"We'll see what's happening with our own team to determine the type of opportunity that he'll get, but with his skillset and what he's accomplished in the league, we see great potential there for him," Keefe said.
Galchenyuk scored 30 goals with the Canadiens in the 2015-16 season, but has faded badly since and bounced between a number of teams.
"Obviously, he's a guy that's trying to find his way and find his game," Keefe said. "We'll just integrate him, and we'll put him in the mix of guys that are competing for spots every night."
Lines at Leafs morning skate:
Thornton - Matthews - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Hyman
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Engvall
Vesey - Boyd - Spezza
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian
Power-play units at morning skate:
Matthews - Boyd - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Spezza