Is this Leafs team for real?
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins (optional) skated at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.
The injury-ravaged Penguins embarrassed the Leafs 7-1 on Oct. 23. Will that serve as motivation heading into tonight's rematch?
"Yeah, definitely," defenceman T.J. Brodie said. "You never really forget those games. We're a different team now."
The pounding in Pittsburgh was the most lopsided loss in the Sheldon Keefe era.
"We don't want to live in the past," the Leafs coach said. "We've come a long way since then and, as it turns out, that's part of our journey to get here. We had to go through something like that. We're in a better place now and, with a lot of their best people back in the lineup, it's an opportunity for us to show that."
The Leafs have won 10 of 12 games since that humbling night in Pittsburgh.
"They're certainly playing extremely well," said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. "Their commitment to play away from the puck is very noticeable in watching some of their more recent games."
Pittsburgh is 3-6-2 since thrashing Toronto but, as Keefe noted, they are mostly healthy now and captain Sidney Crosby is quickly getting up to speed after time on the COVID list.
"You're talking about one of probably the best players in history," said Leafs captain John Tavares. "Probably the best player of this generation. As accomplished as anybody and as driven as anybody. One of the hardest match-ups to have and I've had some good battles with him over the years."
Crosby will play his fifth game of the season on Saturday. He scored his first goal and posted a season-high three shots in a blow-out win in Montreal on Thursday.
"He's strong on the puck," said Brodie. "He's good at protecting it so just try to keep good body position between him and the net and try and get a stick in there to pop it free. You just got to be smart. You can't force it. He's waiting for you to bite on one side and he's going to try and spin off you so it's just a matter of being patient, but taking away time and space at the same time."
Saturday marks Keefe's two-year anniversary as Toronto's head coach. What does he enjoy most about the job?
"It's a privilege to coach the Leafs," he said. "I mean, that's really it: coming here every day, working every day and knowing how passionate people are and how much people care about what you're doing. I've had that at various levels and it's relative of course. This is on a whole other planet. It's been great. I enjoy it every day. I enjoy the challenge of it. I enjoy working every day to figure out how we can make our team better and how we can compete at the highest level when it matters the most."
Although playoff success remains elusive, Keefe has posted an impressive record (74-34-13) with the Leafs. Toronto ranks sixth overall in points percentage (.665) since Nov. 20, 2019.
"He's got such a good feel for the game," Tavares said. "His ability to articulate the game and the way he wants us to play, or when we're preparing for an opponent, is as good as I've seen in terms of, as a player, just understanding the messaging and getting a sense of what we want to do and how we want to go about it."
Tavares says Keefe has grown "a lot" in his two years at the helm.
"He understands our group, especially the guys who have been here for a few years, and continues to push us and [knows] where to push us," the 31-year-old centre said. "He's been great for my game, personally, you know, [dealing with] the ebbs and flows you go through and how you can continue to get better."
"You just have a history here now with guys," Keefe said. "You've built a foundation both in your relationship and in how you've coached them and things you've discussed so you can add layers to that or just reinforce things that they know."
After a slow start, Keefe has the Leafs playing an impressive brand of hockey. The team has won 10 of 11 games, but the hot streak hasn't been fuelled by an explosive offensive attack. Instead, Toronto has been able to win some tight, low-scoring games including against the New York Rangers and Nashville Predators this week.
"It's a mindset," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "Once you get it in your mind that you're going to play a certain way and you're just not going to give up chances against the rest kind of follows. The work ethic has always been there. The real desire to win has always been there, but it's a mental hurdle and a mindset that we're starting to establish."
It's been a point of emphasis behind the scenes.
"Lately, it's been talked about and that's important," Rielly revealed. "I don't think it's been a strong suit of ours in the past so it's good to have open discussion and talk about it and make sure guys realize the importance. When it comes to scoring and guys breaking out and stuff, that's something that's more unsaid. You don't really stress about that type of stuff, because it's more of a bound-to-happen thing, but in terms of locking it down in the third, playing with the lead, being good defensively, I think its good for our group to discuss those things openly."
Since the hot streak started on Oct. 25, the Leafs lead the league in goals against per game (1.82).
"We are far more connected in terms of the relationship between the forwards and the defencemen and how they are playing together," Keefe observed. "Our players are comfortable on the defensive side of the puck and aren't forcing things on the offensive side. A lot of guys, early in the season, are trying to jumpstart their season offensively and are looking to get going. That tends to change your mindset a little bit."
The Leafs rank ninth in goals per game (3.18) during this 11-game surge in the standings. They are 23rd overall this season.
Jack Campbell starts for the Leafs on Saturday as he continues his underdog campaign to make the United States Olympic team.
"He's had a very good start," said Sullivan, who will coach Team USA in Beijing. "We're well aware that Jack's had a really strong start for the Leafs."
America is deep in net with Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck and Anaheim's John Gibson leading the way. Rising Florida star Spencer Knight and Vancouver's Thatcher Demko are also in the mix. Olympian Jonathan Quick is also off to a strong start with Los Angeles. But it is Campbell, who leads the way in games played (15), save percentage (.944) and goals-against average (1.63).
"He's been phenomenal," said Rielly. "He's just stopping everything so you just want to leave him alone. He's like a starting pitcher. You just let him do his thing."
Campbell is quick to highlight the role of goalie coach Steve Briere in his success.
"I just really enjoy working with him whether it's about the goaltending aspect or just helping me have fun and relax," the 29-year-old said. "He's the best I could ask for."
Campbell is hesitant to give away too many details about his process and was tight-lipped when asked how Briere helps him have fun and relax.
"We just laugh and smile," the Michigan native said with a big grin. "It's great."
What leads to those laughs and smiles?
"Jokes," Campbell said ... with a laugh.
Steve Briere’s pre-skate routine: firing a puck off the crossbar from the defensive blue line— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) November 20, 2021
Not an easy task today … Leafs goalie coach blames assistant equipment manager Tom Blatchford for making him feel some extra pressure pic.twitter.com/qEQdD6nwfe
Auston Matthews was among the first three players named to the American Olympic team.
"He's a generational talent," noted Sullivan. "He's a very elite player. I'm excited to have the opportunity to work with him and get to know him on a personal [level]."
The pair met for the first time following Toronto's blowout loss in Pittsburgh.
"I had an opportunity to talk to him for five minutes or so after the game," Sullivan revealed, "which was really my first conversation with Auston. It wasn't the greatest circumstances, but I really appreciated that he would take the time to have a short conversation."
Petr Mrazek hit the ice on Saturday ahead of the main Leafs skate. He's out until early December after aggravating a previous groin injury.
"Today was Petr's first day back on the ice so he's making progress, but it's going to take some time before he's back," said Keefe.
The Leafs plan to give Joseph Woll his second career NHL start on Sunday against the Islanders. Woll allowed four goals on 27 shots while winning his debut last Saturday in Buffalo.
"You never want to judge too much either way off one game," said Keefe. That experience, we think, will help him going forward. We went back and looked at his game, specifically, and the goals that went in ... there's a couple there that we really hung him out to dry. We also looked at some of the saves he made and he looked really confident, in the right spots, looked big in the net and not giving up a lot. So, that helped our confidence in him."
Brodie is impressing teammates with his ability to defend odd-man rushes using a slide-and-swing move.
"His timing is just exceptional," raved Tavares, "and his footwork, his ability to disguise it too, is a big part of it. Very surprising and kind of can come out of nowhere. Obviously, it's brought him a lot of success in his career with his ability to read the play and understand how to defend those scenarios."
"Timing's the biggest thing," Brodie said. "Trying to take away the pass and leave him with only that one option ... you just want to try and force him to raise the puck and give the goalie a chance, if he does get it over, to get over and make the save."
How long did it take the 31-year-old from Chatham, Ont. to refine the technique?
"A while," Brodie said. "I can't remember when we started sliding on two-on-ones, but it definitely took a good part of a year to just get the timing down and to just know you're in the lane and taking away the pass."
Lines at Leafs morning skate:
Ritchie - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Engvall - Kampf - Kase
Bunting - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren
Power play units at Leafs morning skate:
Flanks: Matthews, Marner
Net front: Tavares
Flanks: Engvall, Spezza
Net front: Ritchie