With blueline battered, Leafs need stars to step up
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Seattle Kraken skated at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday.
With Mark Giordano (broken finger) joining John Klingberg (hip) and Timothy Liljegren (high ankle sprain) on the injured list, the Leafs will be playing without half their top-six defencemen for the foreseeable future.
"It requires that you're playing together and supporting one another in all areas of the game," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "That's with the puck, without the puck, defending with numbers, you know? That's how you want to play at the best of times, but certainly when adversity hits, in this case injuries, you need guys to step up in that manner. It's not just those coming in who have to do a job, but everybody else has to pick up the slack just a little bit."
Keefe announced that Giordano is "week-to-week." Liljegren started skating again on Wednesday but isn't close to returning. Klingberg may require surgery and is seeing specialists this week.
William Lagesson skated in Giordano's spot on Thursday morning alongside Jake McCabe, who remains on the right side. The top pair – Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie – and the third pair – Simon Benoit with Conor Timmins – remained unchanged from the start of Tuesday's game.
Lagesson was a healthy scratch against the Florida Panthers but has already played 12 games with the Leafs this season.
"You'll see the pairs move around quite a bit," Keefe noted. "With Lagesson, he's played both sides and you can move him about."
"We're all comfortable playing with each other," Rielly insisted. "We work on that stuff during practice, mixing up pairs and whatnot, so the expectation is there's not going to be any issues with guys playing their off side. I think we'll be well prepared."
With Giordano exiting in the first period on Tuesday, Rielly ended up playing 30 minutes and 30 seconds in the shootout win.
"It's been good," Rielly said. "You always want more ice time. You always want more responsibility, so you know when that comes you want to make the most of it and play well and help your team."
The longest-serving Leaf is averaging 25 minutes and five seconds of ice time so far this season, which is up from 21 minutes and 42 seconds last year.
"He uses his legs so well," said Kraken bench boss Dave Hakstol, who once worked with Rielly as an assistant coach in Toronto. "That’s a huge component within his game. How well he skates allows him to defend, it allows him to be really effective up ice, and ties his entire game together. Extremely competitive guy. You don’t play 30 minutes a night, I don’t care how often it is, you don’t do that without being extremely competitive and mentally strong."
Rielly has played more than 25 minutes in 10 of Toronto's 20 games this season. He has three goals and 16 points.
Auston Matthews has scored just one goal in the past eight games.
"I think I can be better," the centre admitted. "Just consistency throughout the game. I think there’s been some good opportunities at times, but we’d just like, you know, more."
Keefe believes his snakebitten stars are pressing too much for offence lately. Mitch Marner hasn't scored in eight games and William Nylander has gone three straight games without a point.
"They’re trying to find it, trying to find that balance of producing and doing what they do best and be a difference maker offensively for the group, but also recognizing that there’s a process they need to work through to earn those looks and earn those opportunities and work their way through it," said Keefe. "Even Willy’s kind of gone on the other side of it now and has to work his way back. Guys go through this, and the focus has to be our team game and what their role is in our stricture and what’s required there and everything else will fall into place. They’re just too good of players for it not to."
Matthews believes quicker puck movement will help his line establish more offensive-zone time.
"A lot of teams like to, and we play the same way, just swarm especially down low," the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner noted. "Moving off the puck is really important as well. Those are keys and, you know, keeping it simple as well, shooting some pucks, and getting some guys to the net and outnumbering the opposition."
Marner left Tuesday's game in the first period after taking a shot off the face. He returned for the second period wearing a full cage to protect a stitched-up cheek.
"He hated it," said left winger Matthew Knies. "It’s definitely easier to see out of a visor and feels a little more comfortable."
"We liked his look today a lot better," said centre John Tavares with a smile. "We’ll just put it that way."
At Thursday's skate, Marner took the ice wearing a plastic guard around his jaw but didn't seem comfortable. Members of the equipment staff got to work drilling a full shield onto a No. 16 helmet. Marner finished the practice with the full bubble look.
Tavares, who has one assist in the last four games, required some extra face protection in a couple games last season.
"You got some substantial bruising," he recalled, "and especially when you’re in battles you’re always getting nicked or even bumping yourself, so it can be pretty sore and pretty distracting. It’s not ideal when you got to wear face protection, but ... just something you have to adapt too."
Toronto's power play has gone three straight games (0-for-11) without scoring. The Leafs failed to convert on a double minor chance late in Tuesday's game.
"We obviously expect more of ourselves," said Tavares.
This is the first time the Leafs have been held without a power-play goal in consecutive games this season.
"Just want to try and up the urgency," Tavares said. "Just be really direct and not try and overthink a whole lot. Just trust our foundation and what our structure is and just each other. We’ve been together for a long time, our group, and just being really direct and getting to the net and earning second and third opportunities and wearing the penalty kill down and eventually more and more clean looks will happen, and you get rewarded on second and third opportunities."
The Leafs cancelled Wednesday's practice to let guys rest up and did not work on the power play at Thursday's skate.
"It’d be nice to get, with this upcoming week, a little more practice time so we can work on some stuff," Matthews said. "But, in the end, it’s mostly a mindset thing."
After hosting the Boston Bruins on Saturday, the Leafs will not play again until next Thursday, which will allow for some extended practice time.
After losing consecutive games, the Kraken find themselves outside a playoff spot as they prepare for Tuesday's tilt.
"We’ll have to be hungry," said centre Pierre-Édouard Bellemare. "It’s a tough barn to come to and get two points out of. They have a lot weapons, so every shift is going to have to be kind of a life-and-death situation ... We just lost two. So, like, good teams don’t lose three in a row. That’s pretty much the bottom line. We cannot lose this one."
"Every game is big for us right now," stressed defenceman Vince Dunn. "It’s crunch time for us."
The Kraken are playing the second game of a four-game trip and just lost forward Jaden Schwartz to a lower-body injury.
"He’s a guy that’s important to us," said Hakstol, "but now we have an opportunity for somebody else and, collectively, the group has to fill in those holes and overcome his absence here for a little while."
Schwartz is second on the team with eight goals.
"We got a good challenge tonight," said Kraken centre Matty Beniers. "That’s going to show us a good amount of what our group’s made of."
Keefe points out that the Kraken's .888 save percentage, which ranks 27th overall, can be misleading.
"They’re one of the best defensive teams in the league," the Leafs coach said. "You know, their goaltending hasn’t held up for them, but they’ve done a really good job of limiting chances against. They’re very structured. They play hard. They play quickly. Puck hasn’t gone in the net for them to the same degree as it did maybe last year, but you watch them play and they look very similar."
Philipp Grubauer, who has an .881 save percentage in 13 games, was the first goalie off the ice at the morning skate and is expected to start in Toronto.
Joseph Woll will make a third straight start for the Leafs.
Max Domi had no problem with how things played out with Sam Bennett on Tuesday. Domi punched Bennett in a scrum, which led to a roughing penalty. The pair dropped the gloves for real later in the game.
"A lot of respect for Sam," Domi said. "Know him off the ice a little bit. He's a competitor just as I am and a good player too. No issues on my end at all. It’s part of the game."
Domi ran his hands through his hair after the fight against the bald Bennett, who got the better of the bout.
"Just spur of the moment emotions," Domi said with a grin. "Just making sure my hair was still there."
The pinky finger on Domi's left hand has been taped up for a couple weeks now. He arrives to games with it on a splint.
"Still attached to my body, so we’re doing all right," Domi downplayed.
The third-line centre said the injury occurred a couple weeks ago. Domi's first fight of the season came on Nov. 11 against Vancouver's Ian Cole.
Leafs lines at Thursday's skate:
Knies - Matthews - Nylander
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Marner
Robertson - Domi - Jarnkrok
McMann - Kampf - Gregor
Rielly - Brodie
Lagesson - McCabe
Benoit - Timmins