Sandin showing he's ready for prime time minutes
TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who skated at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday ahead of their matchup with the Vancouver Canucks.
After sitting out Thursday's game for maintenance, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Nick Foligno and Jack Campbell are all back in tonight.
"It's a little bit of a process trying to convince guys around here to take time off if they don't absolutely need it," admitted Rielly, who was rocked by a big Josh Anderson hit on Wednesday in Montreal. "But I think that in the long run it was the right thing to do just with the playoffs around the corner and a busy schedule and all that stuff. I'm happy to be back and feeling good and ready to go tonight."
"Guys at this time of the year, they're used to being a little bit banged up, but just pushing through it and playing through it," coach Sheldon Keefe noted. "But we are looking bigger picture. I don't think it's necessary for guys to be pushing through things with where we're at here right now."
The Leafs have a nine-point lead atop the North Division.
Keefe is going back to the formation he employed in Wednesday's win against the Canadiens. So, Rielly will pair with T.J. Brodie while Muzzin reunites with Justin Holl. Foligno will slot back in on the top line beside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner while Campbell starts in net.
Ben Hutton, Timothy Liljegren and Pierre Engvall will be scratches after dressing on Thursday.
Toronto and Vancouver have split eight previous games this season with the home team winning every time.
"We've played not our best at times," Rielly said of the series. "Last game we played was pretty solid through and through. It's important that we keep that going. We know how we have to play. We watched video this morning. We know their structure at this point so it's about executing."
The Canucks own the most wins (four) against the Leafs this season.
With Foligno returning, Joe Thornton drops back down to the fourth line with Adam Brooks and Jason Spezza. That trio has played well since being put together in Winnipeg on April 22.
"There's still some pinch-me moments when you're out there with them," the 24-year-old Brooks said. "They have so much insight into the game and see so much. There's something every game whether it be a hole in the defence, where they want you positioned on the breakout or in the O-zone where they want you popping to ... It's so easy to play with them and it's still pretty crazy."
Spezza and Thornton have both hit the scoresheet in four straight games while Brooks has a goal and an assist in that stretch.
"We've worked hard to create an identity," Spezza said. "We know what works for us. We know what doesn't. We're seeing each other well. We're doing a good job of trying to spread the zone and use our bodies. Brooks is a really smart player. He complements us really well."
Thornton, who's lined up in the middle for most of his Hall-of-Fame career, is feeling more and more at ease on left wing where he has played exclusively this season.
"It took me a little bit, but I feel comfortable there and my game is coming along nicely now," the 41-year-old told TSN during Thursday's game broadcast. "Usually at centre you're always around the puck and you're kind of controlling the game. [On the wing] you have to look a lot more and you have to read the centre and know where you are on the ice a little bit more so it took me some time, but I feel comfortable there now."
Brooks, meanwhile, isn't getting comfortable in the Leafs lineup. He's only played seven games this year and 14 NHL games overall.
"There was a huge stretch of the season where I didn't really even see myself coming back to this position so I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunity," the Winnipeg native said. "You can't get complacent in this spot."
Forwards Riley Nash and Zach Hyman are skating again as they work their way back from knee injuries.
"We've got injuries here that are keeping guys out of the line-up so it's created additional opportunities for other players and Brooksy's one that's really taken advantage of his," Keefe said. "He's taken it and run with it here. He does what you want young players to do, which is don't give the coaches a reason to take you out and control what you can control. No matter how much you play, go out and be effective and show that you bring value to the team. He's done that every single game and coaches are recognizing it. Perhaps, especially this time of the year, even more importantly, his teammates are recognizing it."
With Rielly and Muzzin back, Rasmus Sandin will return to the third pair. There's no doubt he made the most of his audition in the top four. The 21-year-old Swede played a career high 21 minutes and 39 seconds on Thursday, picking up an assist and finishing plus-two.
"He's been outstanding," gushed Rielly. "The one area of his game that I like a lot is just his patience with the puck. He holds onto it and makes plays and it's awesome to see from a young player."
The Leafs had a day off on Friday, but Sandin was still making a mark by doing some radio interviews. He was, of course, asked about that big reverse hit on Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg.
"I just saw I had a guy on my back and I thought he was going to hit me so I just tried to make a play," Sandin told Leafs Lunch host Andi Petrillo on TSN 1050. "I tried to protect myself and protect the puck as well so it turned out to be a pretty big hit and all the guys on the team loved it."
Was the 5-foot-11, 183-pounder surprised by how much of a buzz the big hit created?
"A little bit," Sandin said. "I don't think about it as that. I think about it as playing hockey. You know, it’s a physical sport and whenever you can use your body I think you should. I was a little surprised it turned out to be that popular on social media."
Rasmus Sandin rocks Blake Wheeler pic.twitter.com/BfvlbgdpyB— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) April 24, 2021
At one point during Friday's interview, Sandin revealed countryman William Nylander was with him.
"Sorry, I have an annoying guy right beside me," Sandin said with a laugh. "He's just jealous of me talking to you guys. He's trying to make fun of me here."
The pair trained together in the off-season. What's the key defending against Nylander?
"Chirp him," Sandin said with a chuckle. "That would be the easiest way, I think. I have my Swedish chirps. Maybe throw a reverse hit on him ... He says he's unstoppable."
Nylander, who is celebrating his 25th birthday today, has opened the scoring for the Leafs in the last two games.
Wayne Simmonds dropped the gloves with Alex Edler on Thursday night. It was the first time the Leafs had seen the Canucks defenceman since his knee-on-knee hit sidelined Hyman on April 18.
What message did Simmonds send?
"I don’t think he was trying to do anything like that," said Rielly. "He felt a certain way about what had transpired in Vancouver and it got dealt with and now it's over so we move on."
Simmonds fills Edler in pic.twitter.com/RLG7wx8JHQ— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 29, 2021
Simmonds was brought in during the off-season in part to boost Toronto's team toughness.
"I do think little things like that are in the fabric of our game and I think are part of what makes a team a team, brings a team together," Keefe said after Thursday's game. "Credit to Simmer for stepping up in those situations. I think his teammates appreciate it and recognize it. It set a good tone for the game. It was nothing that was really talked about beforehand or anything like that. It caught me a little bit off guard, but I think anyone who's been around the game kind of knew what was happening there and credit for Wayne to step up and, at the same time, for Edler to participate in that."
Hyman has started skating again as he works his way back from the MCL sprain.
Lines at Saturday's Leafs skate:
Foligno - Matthews - Marner
Galchenyuk - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Simmonds
Thornton - Brooks - Spezza
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Dermott
Hutton - Liljegren
Power play units at Saturday's Leafs skate:
Flanks: Matthews, Marner
Net front: Nylander
Flanks: Kerfoot, Spezza
Net front: Simmonds