Matthews, Marner earn well-deserved rest after playing 'too many minutes'
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Thursday ahead of Friday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Mitch Marner played a career-high 29 minutes and 10 seconds in Wednesday's shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Auston Matthews logged 26 minutes and 52 seconds, which was a season high. As a result, Toronto's dynamic duo did not take the ice at Thursday's practice.
"Those guys played too many minutes last night and with back-to-back coming up here just made sense to give them the day today," said coach Sheldon Keefe.
Marner is averaging 21 minutes and 19 seconds of ice time per game. Matthews is at 20 minutes and eight seconds. So, what sparked the surge on Wednesday?
"That's just the way the game went," Keefe explained. "In a lot of ways it was a best-on-best type of game last night. [Nathan] MacKinnon and [Mikko] Rantanen, they're at 25 minutes and those guys don't kill penalties. [Cale] Makar is at 30 minutes. It's kind of the way the game went yesterday."
And it's not like Marner and Matthews struggled under the weight of the workload.
"You look up last night and you see how many minutes they played and it doesn't look like that," said defenceman Mark Giordano. "It looked like they were going all night."
"It wasn't like it was an up-and-down, grinding, physical game," Keefe noted. "It was a little more methodical and teams trying to feel their way to try and get a chance so I thought they could handle the minutes through the game. But it is important to give them the recovery time."
Marner ended up playing the third most minutes of any player in a game this season behind only MacKinnon, who played 29 minutes and 50 seconds one night, and Connor McDavid, who logged 29 minutes and 23 seconds in a game.
"Mitch's minutes are climbing real high," said Keefe, "but every time there's a stoppage in play, I can feel him looking back and looking at me, like, just to let me know that he's ready to go and that's what you want. You'd like to see all the eyes looking at you like that and make the decision who’s going to go out."
The Leafs have dressed 11 forwards and seven defencemen in five of six games since March 2. During this stretch, Marner is averaging 24 minutes and 22 seconds while Matthews is up to 22 minutes and 23 seconds.
"It's, honestly, not bad," Matthews assured reporters on Wednesday night. "You get in a rhythm, get out there a little bit more. In the first period we had some good shifts there, we were rolling around a little bit and third period as well. Sometimes it works out pretty nice like that."
Still, it's not the ideal way to kick off a stretch of three games in four nights with travel mixed in. The Leafs host the Metropolitan Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes on Friday before making the trip to Ottawa for a Saturday showdown with the Senators.
"Players, generally, want to get on the ice," Keefe said. "Certainly, it gets to a point where maybe it can be too much especially when you start to pile on the games that are coming after it."
The Leafs are planning to go on a long playoff run so it's important that Matthews and Marner are as fresh and feeling good. And yet there's a strong belief that they can handle big minutes now and in the future.
"They read the play so well that they can play those minutes," said Giordano. "I think that's a big part of it. They are smart players and anticipate a lot of plays and then they have the puck a lot on their stick in the offensive zone. It's a lot easier to play offence than defence and they're two guys that read the play so well that they have the puck a lot."
Michael Bunting has played on a line with Matthews and Marner for much of the last two seasons. Has he ever seen them get tired?
"No, I don't think so," he said with a grin. "They played a lot last night, but you wouldn't notice it. They were out there every shift working hard and playing their game so a well earned day off today."
Keefe says the Leafs will likely dress 12 forwards on Saturday, which should take some strain off the top players.
"Those guys take on a lot whether it's special teams, 5-on-5, overtime, shootout, there's a lot there so that's why you got to be mindful of their recovery time," Keefe said. "But certainly they do have the engines and they have the ability to take on those burdens and handle it very well."
Marner ends up logging more minutes than Matthews, because he's on the top penalty-kill unit.
"He's just a buzzsaw," said Matthews. "He doesn't stop."
"His engine doesn't stop on the ice or off," said Bunting. "He's always going and always 'buzzing' as he says."
Marner's play hasn't faltered despite the uptick in ice time. He picked up a nice assist on the Morgan Rielly ice breaker on Monday.
"He turned around and looked for me before I made the play so you know it's coming before he gets it," said Rielly. "Obviously, that's not very common. Only great passers can kind of have that influence on their teammates."
Marner also registered four blocks on Wednesday, including a potential game saver on a Devon Toews shot in overtime.
"It's extremely impressive," said centre John Tavares, who's averaging 17 minutes and 35 seconds per game. "You see it in the energy he has around the group every single day. Just an incredible engine on him. [It's] more and more difficult to process things the more you get tired and fatigued, but he still just has such a good hockey IQ and is able to make plays and have a good understanding of the game under pressure. Yeah, that's not easy to do."
Luke Schenn will be in the lineup for Friday's game against the Hurricanes. It will be his first home game with the Leafs since ... April 5, 2012.
"It's going to be, I don't know, I can't even put it in words," the 33-year-old defenceman said. "It's going to be crazy. I think of all the memories of coming out through that tunnel from the Leafs room and into the home arena here, it's just crazy. Obviously, unbelievable fans. I can't really describe it. I don't know what it's going to be like but, put it this way, I'm fired right up for it."
It should be an emotional moment as Leafs Nation welcomes back the player drafted fifth overall by the franchise in 2008.
"It's been very clear to me from my first conversation I ever had with him just how important and special it is for him to come back here," said Keefe. "I think he's felt like there's some unfinished business here ... He's got a great appreciation for what it means to be a Maple Leaf."
Schenn grew up in Saskatchewan where his family cottage was right beside one belonging to former Leaf Wade Belak.
"Growing up you watch all the Leaf games," said Schenn. "Once I got drafted there I somewhat knew what to expect, but really no idea the magnitude."
Schenn played a couple of games for the Leafs on the road before taking some time away to be with his family. He and his wife welcomed their third child, a daughter named Romee Grace, last Friday in Vancouver. Now, Schenn is ready for a long-awaited reunion with Leafs fans. He returns to Toronto a Stanley Cup champion having been part of Tampa Bay's runs in 2020 and 2021.
"I obviously remember Schenner when he was younger here," said Giordano. "He's a very similar player to when he came in, but he's a more veteran guy now. You can see it and hear it when you talk to him. It was impressive to watch him for those first few games with how physical he is and how strong he is out there.He's going to be a big part of our team. So, nice for him to have his baby and get that all settled and now he's back with the group and ready to get back in there."
Schenn, who leads the NHL in hits, sure looked ready at practice.
"If we have battle drills, I'm going to stay away from No. 2," Bunting said with a laugh. "He's a big boy and brings that element every night. He works hard in the corners and in front of the net, boxing out guys and laying that body, but he also has a little skill to his game and makes those good passes, break-out passes. Yeah, he's a great addition."
Schenn paired with Jake McCabe at practice, but Keefe noted things will move around with seven defencemen dressed.
Giordano added another shot block to his record-setting total on Wednesday.
"That one stung a bit," the 39-year-old said of the Logan O'Connor shot, which nailed him in the arm during the first period. "It just got me where there's no padding, but when you throw a turnover like that up the middle, you gotta get down to try and recover. I just tried to get in the way."
Giordano has now gotten in the way of 2,055 shots, which is the most recorded by the NHL since they began consistently tracking that statistic during the 2005-06 season. Giordano moved into top spot on that list during a game in Seattle on Feb. 26. A couple days later he received a shield bearing his No. 55 from general manager Kyle Dubas to mark the achievement.
"It meant a lot," the Toronto native said. "I take a lot of pride in the D-zone, playing well defensively and on the penally kill and blocking shots is a big part of that. It meant a lot that our guys recognized it that way."
Rielly wore a microphone for American broadcaster TNT during Wednesday's game.
"You lose track of it, honestly," the 29-year-old defenceman said. "It's not something that I think anyone really enjoys, unless you like the spotlight, but I think it's a good thing to do. We're all trying to grow the game so if that's conducive to that then it's all good."
So, was it an easy sell?
"There was a little bit of negotiating," Rielly said with a smile, "but it's all good."
Rielly prefers to let his teammates have the spotlight, but he was front and centre on Wednesday. The Vancouver native scored the opening goal, which snapped a 12-game drought. It was only his third goal of the season. Could it be a springboard to more offence down the stretch?
"Yeah, for sure," Rielly said. "I think so. I think we're all trying to push for more and get better. This is an important time of year and we're all trying to find that next level."
Rielly has struggled through injury and inconsistency this season, but the longest-serving Leaf came out strong against the Avalanche.
"I don't think he has had the same jump in some of the previous games," noted Keefe. "In this one, he started that way. He rips one off the cross-bar early on. He jumps into the hole to get the puck to shoot it. He jumps into a similar hole on the second chance, which he makes good on. He mixes up the shot. The first one is high and off the bar. The second one is low corner. It was a terrific start from him. I am not sure what you can attribute it to, but that is what we need to see from Morgan in terms of jumping into those holes and kind of being that guy off of the puck that can be a threat for us offensively. I thought he played hard and defended well as well."
Colorado's only goal on Wednesday came on a power play, but it was a lucky break as a Rantanen shot deflected in off McCabe. The Leafs killed off Colorado's other four man-advantage opportunities.
"I thought we did a great job last night," Giordano said. "Any time you give one up you don't like it, but we didn't give them much. We were pressuring really hard. We were getting good clears last night and when things did break down Sammy [Ilya Samsonov] was there and he made some big saves."
Colorado's best power-play chance of the night may have come on an end-to-end rush by Makar.
"You're going old school there and looking at his chest and trying to follow him, but he was coming pretty quick," said Giordano, who was staring down the Norris Trophy winner when he made that mad dash up the ice. "There's only a few guys in the league that you feel that type of speed coming on you. He's one of them. MacKinnon's obviously another one and McDavid too. He was coming with a lot of speed, but I felt like his shiftiness sort of surprised me a little bit. I just tried to watch his chest and stay with him."
Lucky for the Leafs and Giordano, Makar shot wide.
Despite a strong night, Toronto's penalty kill has now allowed a goal in five straight games. They have dropped to 13th overall in penalty-kill percentage.
"We've been really good for a while now, but we don't like giving up goals and we've given up a few here the last few games and need to clean that up," said Giordano, who is averaging two minutes and 18 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game. "Our structure and our reads have been pretty good for a while now and we have to keep sharpening."
Samsonov stopped 28 of 29 shots on Wednesday.
"He was locked in," said Keefe. "He looked really athletic and dynamic with some of the saves he made with his hands. I thought he was excellent. In a game in which there wasn't a whole lot of opportunity for the goalie to really shine, I thought he was still a standout in the game for us."
It's never an easy night when you're facing MacKinnon and Makar.
"It's a ton of speed," Samsonov said. "You know, like, you need [to be] a little bit prepared before these guys enter zone. You need to get ready for everything. You need to see where is forward moving? Where is D moving? These guys are really smart and, yeah, it's good competition before playoff. It's perfect."
Samsonov robbed countryman Valeri Nichushkin who got loose for a breakaway during a Leafs power play in the second period.
"I need to stop this puck, especially for Russian guy," Samsonov said with a smile. "It's good competition for me. He tried good, but good save ... We meet with everybody Russian. You know, there's not a lot of us in the league. We meet with everybody. He's a nice guy. [Alexandar] Georgiev, I play with him at World Junior Championship. We stay together. Yeah, I know a lot of Russians."
Keefe didn't reveal the goalie plan for this weekend other than to say both Samsonov and Matt Murray will play a game. Samsonov was the first goalie off the ice at practice, which is the usual routine for a guy starting the next day.
If Samsonov does start on Friday, he may face another Russian if the Hurricanes go with Pyotr Kochetkov. Samsonov revealed that Kochetkov called him a couple years ago looking for advice about whether to play in the KHL or come to North America. Samsonov encouraged Kochetkov to make the trip overseas, which he did.
Rod Brind'Amour was also mum on his goalie decision during a media session in Raleigh. The Hurricanes are also starting a back-to-back set on Friday night. They have been rotating starts and it's Kochetkov's turn, but Brind'Amour suggested he could look to give Frederik Andersen a shot against his old team.
Right-shot defenceman Conor Timmins did not take part in the main practice, but did work with Toronto's skill development staff.
"He'll be more on the developmental path the rest of the season," said Keefe. "We think he's shown such great ability to play and has got such great potential, but we think he's missed very important time in his personal development whether it was through injuries or bouncing around. He hasn't developed physically the way he otherwise would have if he didn't have disrupted off-seasons and things like that. So, we're making up for some lost time there and continuing to work with him, which I think will help him not only down the line and beyond this season, but even if it comes to a point where we need him this season we think he'll be further along to help us."
Timmins hasn't played since the Leafs acquired Erik Gustafsson and Schenn ahead of the trade deadline. His last game was on Feb. 24.
"Sometimes playing the games is not the right rhythm and the best thing or in the best interests of the player and I think this is one of those examples where if he gets proper development it could make up for some lost time," Keefe said. "Our additional depth has allowed us to put him on that path."
A fan brought a sign to Wednesday's game that read, "MARK GIORDANO, YOUR MOM DOES MY NONNA'S HAIR!!!"
"I saw it after the game," Giordano said with a chuckle. "My sister sent me a pic of it. Someone had sent it to her. We'll figure out who that was and whose hair my mom's doing and next time I'll try to get them a puck. I didn't see it in warm-up, but that's a funny sign."
Acquired at the trade deadline last season, Giordano is in his first full season with his hometown team.
"My mom's at every game," Giordano said. "She wants to be around. She keeps telling me she missed me for 15 years there in Calgary so she's not going to miss any games in Toronto. So, she's around a lot. It's nice to have her. It's nice to be around family."
Lines at Leafs practice on Friday:
Bunting - Tavares - Nylander
Kerfoot - Lafferty - Jarnkrok
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Acciari
Rielly - Brodie
McCabe - Schenn
Giordano - Liljegren
Gustafsson - Holl