TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who held a media availability at Gila River Arena on Wednesday night ahead of their game against the Arizona Coyotes.
Arizona native Auston Matthews returns home with a chance to make Maple Leafs history tonight.
The superstar centre has scored in eight straight road games matching the franchise record shared by Daniel Marois (1989-90), Frank Mahovlich (1960-61) and Babe Dye (1920-21). A goal against the Coyotes would allow Matthews to stand alone and it would add extra meaning to an already meaningful night.
"It's exciting to go back and play where you grew up," Matthews said. "It's always a game I got circled on my calendar."
Matthews hasn't played in his hometown since Nov. 21, 2019. He has scored in two of his four NHL games in the desert.
"I love going back home and spending time there," he said. "Playing in front of friends of family is a big deal for me ... I try to stay present and soak it all in."
Per the Elias Sports Bureau, no NHL player has scored in nine consecutive road games since Alex Ovechkin (nine) in March-April 2013. The NHL single-season record for consecutive road games with a goal is 11, shared by Pavel Bure (1993-94) and Steve Yzerman (1988-89).
Matthews is cognizant of the fact this is also a big night for linemate Michael Bunting, who was drafted by the Coyotes in 2014 and played 26 games for Arizona from 2018 to 2021.
"We're expecting big things," Matthews said before cracking a smile. "He's been talking about this game for a long time. Should be a pretty big video tribute for him and all that stuff."
Bunting started laughing when informed of that statement.
"Yeah, I don't think there will be a video tribute," the 26-year-old said. "That's pretty funny that he said that."
Bunting spent most of his time in the Arizona organization in the American Hockey League.
"I'm sure there's going to be some fans from Tucson coming to support me," Bunting said. "I saw a couple [in Vegas], actually, so that was pretty cool."
Bunting experienced plenty of good moments with Arizona last season when he scored 10 times in 21 games.
"It's definitely going to be a bittersweet moment going back, because I made a lot of friendships along the way. I was there six or seven years so it's a second home," the Scarborough, Ont., native said. "Playing my first NHL game for that organization was definitely a memory I'm going to remember for the rest of my life."
Bunting returns to Arizona riding high. He has produced 21 points in 34 games this season and is making the most of a top-line chance alongside Matthews.
"Me and him hang out quite a bit off the ice. We build that chemistry off the ice and we bring it on the ice," Bunting said. "He is one of the best players in the world and every single night he's bringing his game so I know I got to bring mine."
Bunting set up Matthews for a goal in Vegas and the pair shared an enthusiastic celebration afterwards.
"We've gotten pretty close," Matthews said. "Ever since we started playing together it's been a lot of fun ... He works hard. He goes to those dirty areas and fishes out picks and makes plays. Just an easy guy to play with."
This is also a homecoming game for Sheldon Keefe, whose wife is from Arizona.
"The family part of it is something for me for sure," the coach said. "I know for Auston it is. For Bunts, going back to play against an organization that gave you a start in the NHL ... I am hoping that kind of stuff is something that we can rally around."
Keefe, who made his NHL coaching debut in Arizona, is also hoping the way the last two games ended will inject some extra emotion into the proceedings. The Leafs blew multi-goal leads in Colorado and Vegas to start this road trip.
"We should be a little aggravated about how we have let these leads slip away and take that aggravation and turn it into motivation," Keefe said. "We have played two very elite teams here in the West. We have gotten three of the four points. We feel good about that, but if we want to be a serious hockey team, we have to be better in third periods and find ways to control the game."
Toronto fell in overtime in Colorado after leading 4-1, but escaped Vegas with a 4-3 shootout win after squandering a 3-1 advantage. On Saturday, the Avalanche outshot the Leafs 19-5 in the third period. On Tuesday, the shot clock favoured the Knights 12-2 in the third period.
"In Colorado, we were absolutely dominated in the third period," Keefe noted. "I don't think it was a defensive issue [in Vegas] ... To me, it is more of an issue of: we have to relax and play the game, make some plays, play on offence and control the play. We can't just be on our heels ... we didn't push back offensively."
The turning point in Vegas, Keefe said, came midway through the third period after Kyle Clifford took a tripping penalty. The Leafs responded well initially. Ondrej Kase actually had a shorthanded breakaway, but failed to convert. Moments later, Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie both hopped on the ice after Jake Muzzin went for a change. The Leafs were whistled for too many men after Alex Kerfoot fired a pass to Brodie.
"I don't remember the last time I saw a shorthanded team get called for too many men, especially when they have the puck," Keefe said. "Those are the things that can't happen. Those are the mental mistakes that you have to get out of your game if you want to win games and take care of games against good teams."
Alex Pietrangelo scored during the two-man advantage to tie the game. Vegas also scored on a power play in the first period after Nick Ritchie was called for hooking Brayden McNabb. Ritchie owns the worst penalty differential (-8) on the team.
During the second period, Muzzin went to the box for delay of game and Kerfoot got nabbed for high sticking. Add it all up and Toronto was shorthanded five times, which matched a season high.
"I didn't like any of our penalties at all," Keefe said, "stuff far away from our net, careless penalties."
The Leafs grabbed the lead in the first period when Rielly sprang William Nylander for a breakaway with a nice pass.
"It was unbelievable," Nylander gushed. "It was a bullet and a saucer pass at the same time. Right over the guy's stick and landed flat on my tape. It was an unbelievable pass."
Rielly is up to 25 assists on the season. He's on pace for 60 helpers, which would easily eclipse his previous career high of 52 set in the 2018-19 season.
"On fire," said Nylander of the longest-serving Leaf. "He leads the way every night."
Since Dec. 1, Rielly has racked up one goal and 14 assists in 11 games. He leads all NHL defencemen in points per-game during that stretch.
Nylander bookended the night with the shootout winner, but wasn't at all satisfied.
"Our line, we weren't good," he said. "We struggled. They had heavy O-zone pressure on us. We were just sloppy with the puck. Poor decisions with it and led to a lot of time in the D-zone."
Nylander, John Tavares and Kerfoot had the worst possession marks among Toronto's forwards on Tuesday night, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
"They've had some great moments and some good chances, but we're looking for some consistency," Keefe said. "Both games on this trip, I would say that that line, whether it was [Ilya] Mikheyev or Kerfoot with them, hasn't been good enough for us. They have a whole lot more to offer us ... They've been so good that when they slip a little bit it really stands out ... I would certainly think they would bounce back tonight."
Petr Mrazek gets the start for the Leafs on Wednesday. It will be his first game action since Dec. 11.
"He's worked hard at his body and getting healthy and having that confidence to go out and be himself in the net," said Keefe. "It's a bit of a reset for Petr now."
Mrazek is 5-0-1 in his career against Arizona and posted shutouts in his last two games against the Coyotes.
The Leafs are making a couple of lineup changes. Up front, Joey Anderson draws in replacing Clifford. It will be Anderson's third game with the Leafs this season and first since Dec. 4.
On defence, Timothy Liljegren will play for the first time since Dec. 14.
Who will be the odd man out on the blue line?
"We do have a game-time decision that we're waiting on," Keefe said. "There are some roster and cap implications that could see Rasmus Sandin be the likely guy to be out, but we'll make that determination after warm-up."
Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall, who will miss a third straight game (COVID protocol), are expected to join the team in Arizona on Thursday.
Keefe hopes that both forwards will be able to take part in Friday's practice.