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Lyubushkin makes Leafs debut 2.0 in possible playoff preview with Rangers

Ilya Lyubushkin  Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Lyubushkin - Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers held optional skates at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday. 

Ilya Lyubushkin walked into the middle of a group of reporters with a big smile on his face. 

"I missed you guys," the right-handed defenceman said. 

Lyubushkin will make his Toronto Maple Leafs debut 2.0 on Saturday night.

"It's easy to join this team for me because I know this organization," he said. "I know these guys, my teammates. It's unbelievable ... I feel like it's a big family here."

Lyubushkin was originally acquired by Toronto in a deal made by former general manager Kyle Dubas with the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 19, 2022. He played 31 games down the stretch and then all seven games in a playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. New general manager Brad Treliving brought Lyubushkin back to Toronto in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night. 

"I'm not surprised," the pending unrestricted free agent said of being moved. "I was ready for this. But, you know, trade, every time, a little surprise."

Lyubushkin landed in Toronto late on Friday night and only got around six hours of sleep. Nonetheless, he's eager to jump right into a game against one of the NHL's hottest teams in the New York Rangers

"I try [not to] think too much about this," the 29-year-old said. "Just ready for a game and [will] play my game."

Lyubushkin's gritty, hard-nosed style of play made a big impression on the Leafs in 2022. 

"Lyubushkin, at that time, brought a lot to our team in terms of physicality and just competitiveness and being hard to enter our zone, hard to be around our net, which is something we really needed at that time and we still need it," said coach Sheldon Keefe. 

Lyubushkin won't hesitate to defend teammates. He dropped the gloves with Bobby McMann on Jan. 3 after the Leafs winger levelled Ducks rookie Pavel Mintyukov. The pair briefly addressed that moment on Saturday morning. 

"I told him he was a good fighter," McMann said with a grin. "He was like, 'No, no.' I was like, 'Yeah, you're pretty strong. You know how to do it.' He's modest and saying, 'No.' Happy to have him on this side so we're not doing that again."

Lyubushkin will slot in beside Morgan Rielly, who he also paired with a couple years ago. 

"Good partner," the Moscow native said. "Unbelievable I have a chance again to play with him."

"Just seemed to complement each other well," recalled Keefe. "Seemed to complement Morgan well and bring out the best in him."

Lyubushkin's experience in Toronto marked his only experience with a team that made the Stanley Cup playoffs. What's the chance to get back there mean to him? 

"It's best part of hockey life," he said. "So, no words."

ContentId(1.2083678): Lyubushkin excited for another opportunity with Toronto


Lyubushkin's arrival will allow the Leafs to move left-handed defenceman T.J. Brodie back to his natural side. 

"Just that one move is able to sort of snap some things into place for us," said Keefe.

Despite playing most of his career on the right, Brodie has looked way more comfortable on his strong side this season. 

"It improves his ability to see the ice and move the puck," said Keefe. "You're defending less. You're getting the puck in the hands of the forwards better, quicker. You get to see a lot more of the ice from that side and can execute passes cleaner. It's really difficult to be on your backhand and be surveying the ice. Usually when you're on the backhand, you're looking at the puck. When you're on your natural side you're seeing the ice and, the puck, you can just feel it, you don't have to look at it. The backhand complicates things quite a bit. It's just one less thing for him to worry about and think about."

Brodie skated with Jake McCabe, a lefty who has been playing the right most of the season, at Friday's practice.

ContentId(1.2083672): Lyubushkin reunites with Rielly tonight, as Leafs welcome in Rangers


With righty Timothy Liljegren out this week, the Leafs have been forced to dress an all-lefty defence in the last two games. Liljegren skated on Saturday morning and is listed as a game-time decision. 

"I feel good," he said. "Felt good out there this morning, so we'll see."

Liljegren sustained an undisclosed injury during the team's 4-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche last Saturday. 

"Just got jammed up," he said. "Nothing too serious, but obviously bad enough for me not to play."

William Lagesson is expected to be the odd man out if Liljegren is able to return.


Winger Calle Jarnkrok, who sustained a broken knuckle after getting hit by a puck in practice on Jan. 26, will return to the Leafs lineup on Saturday. During Friday's practice, Jarnkrok skated on the third line with captain John Tavares and McMann. 

"He's fast," said McMann. "He works hard. He's hard on pucks. He's always on the defensive side too, so he plays a good 200-foot game as a winger. It will be exciting to play with him."

Nick Robertson is expected to be a healthy scratch for the first time since Jan. 20.

ContentId(1.2083731): Leafs Ice Chips: '200-foot winger' Jarnkrok returns for 'playoff preview'


Rangers rookie Matt Rempe will play his seventh career NHL game, but first one north of the border. 

"I'm a Canadian kid," the Calgary native said. "It's my first game in the NHL in Canada so I'm really excited. Saturday night, Toronto-Rangers, it's going to be a big game, so I'm real excited."

Rempe made his debut in an outdoor game on Feb. 18 against the New York Islanders and dropped the gloves with veteran Matt Martin before his first shift. He's taken part in two more fights since then.

Is that his key to sticking in the NHL? 

"No, not necessarily," the 21-year-old stressed. "I think I can do lots of different things. Skate well, play physical, lots of different things, but I want to be the guy to stand up for his teammates. I want to do that type of thing ... but just another tool in a toolbox, per se. Just another tool."

A tool he may need to use on Saturday against Leafs tough guy Ryan Reaves

"He's had a great career," said Rempe, sporting a shiner and a smile. "I got a lot of respect for him. He's a real tough guy and he's carved out a great career for himself."

Reaves, 37, recorded his third fight of the season against Arizona Coyotes forward Liam O'Brien, and first since Oct. 14, during the Maple Leafs' 4-2 victory over the Coyotes on Thursday.

"Obviously, for a guy like him, it gets to be harder to find fights," said Keefe. "As you get older you're not going looking for them as much either ... As much as I think it's a part of it, a lot of that stuff is sideshow stuff that really doesn't have as much of an impact on the game as we think. It's more about the play on the ice."

ContentId(1.2083729): Rempe respects Reaves; excited for first NHL game in Canada

Rempe and Reaves aren't just fighting, they are stringing together strong shifts. 

"I'm watching this Rangers fourth line, like, these guys are coming in and doing a good job," Keefe continued. "They're not playing a lot, but they're forechecking well. They're all around the net. They're hard to handle once they get running around in the offensive zone, so they're being effective in those ways."

Reaves scored a goal on Tuesday in the Leafs' 6-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights and seems to be generating chemistry with Pontus Holmberg and David Kampf

"Reavo has played some terrific hockey and the opposition has had a real hard time handling him with him skating and playing the way that he is," Keefe said. "To me, that's more of what it's about, you know, is how you can impact the game. The threat, if you can call it that, of the fighting and physicality is one thing that's sort of out there, but when those players can play and impact the game, now you really got something."

It's the fighting, though, that seems to have turned Rempe into an overnight sensation in the Big Apple where the "Rempire State Building" nickname is gaining traction. 

"It's real cool," he said. "I'm walking around yesterday and some car is driving by and rolls down the window. I was like, 'What’s going on?' And they're like, 'Remps! Remps!' I was like, 'That's pretty cool.'"

The sixth round pick in the 2020 draft, who has one goal and one assist with the Rangers, can't help but reflect on his meteoric rise. 

"My mom yesterday was like, 'Your childhood doctor phoned me,'" Rempe said. "He phoned my mom's landline and just talking about how proud of me he was .... I've come a long way. Like, I was a guy that wasn't drafted to the WHL. I wasn't a guy who made it as a 16-year-old in junior. I continue to have so much work to do still, but I've come a long way. It's been cool to see guys who have known me for a long time, and know the work I've put in, see me starting to show what I can do on the ice and at the biggest level."

Rempe is determined to remain levelheaded amid the hype. 

"I've played six games. I've played six games," he repeated. "I got a lot of work to do, so just want to keep doing that."

ContentId(1.2083751): Rangers' Rempe determined to show he's more than a fighter


Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews scored two goals in each of the two previous games against the Rangers this season. 

"We were hoping he had the flu," cracked Rangers coach Peter Laviolette. "He's a guy that just finds ways to score goals. I mean, he scores them from everywhere."

Matthews picked up goal No. 53 on the season in Thursday's win over the Coyotes. It snapped a two-game drought, which was his longest since Jan. 13-14. 

Matthews leads the league in goals and the Leafs lead the Eastern Conference in goals per game (3.66). 

"They're high octane," said Laviolette. "We've got to make sure we're ready to play good defence, keep things in check, keep things in front of us, and then defend well. If you can do that then you have a chance to be successful. He's found ways to put pucks in the back of the net, but their team has found ways to generate offence, so we got to make sure we're sharp defensively."

The Leafs have won eight of nine games. The Rangers have won 11 of 12. 

"You could almost say it's a bit of a playoff preview," said McMann. "Both teams are playing heavy, playing skilled, playing hard to win, and I think it should be exciting."

The Rangers are tied for second in the Eastern Conference in goals against per game (2.7). 

"Playing with confidence," said  Rangers defenceman K'Andre Miller. "Playing the right way. Playing a good brand of hockey right now, so not too much to change. I think we're bringing the right intensity every game and every night."

Igor Shesterkin, who went 7-0-0 in February with a .953 save percentage, will start in net for the Rangers on Saturday.

ContentId(1.2083745): Laviolette on Matthews: 'We were hoping he had the flu'


Projected Leafs lineup for Saturday's game: 

Knies - Matthews - Marner 
Bertuzzi - Domi - Nylander 
McMann - Tavares - Jarnkrok
Holmberg - Kampf - Reaves 

Rielly - Lyubushkin
Brodie - McCabe
Benoit - Lagesson or Liljegren 

Samsonov starts