Matthews excited to bring Knies into the fold for Leafs' playoff run
The Maple Leafs practiced at the Ford Performance Centre on Sunday.
William Nylander scored a goal and fired a career high 10 shots on net during Saturday's win over the Montreal Canadiens. Is the Toronto Maple Leafs winger back on track?
"It's only one game so you can't say 'back on track' yet, but maybe a step in the right direction," Nylander said.
"Willy had his best game in a long time and deserved to have a lot more goals than he did, but that will keep him hungry," said coach Sheldon Keefe.
Nylander had been held off the scoresheet in 10 of the previous 12 games.
"Last night was a good indication of the fact that he's motivated to work his way through it," said Keefe. "He was tremendous. He was taking guys on 1-on-1. He's skating through traffic, skating through battles and getting to the other side to get his stick free and to get off a shot."
In an effort to get the second line going, Keefe put Ryan O'Reilly with John Tavares and Nylander on Saturday night.
"Strong faceoff guy, defensively very sound and made nice plays," Nylander said. "He gave me and John some more space."
"He just makes life easier when he's out there in terms of how he plays, but also how he communicates," noted Keefe. "He is the most vocal guy we have on the bench. He is talking non-stop ... We got two players in John and Will that are quiet, guys that do their talking on the ice and with how they play. But sometimes, especially if you're maybe starting to get in your head a little bit when things aren't going great, someone like [O'Reilly] can get you going. I thought that line was great."
Keefe also bumped Nylander to the second power play unit.
"He did what I wanted him to do when he was out there with that group," Keefe said, "which is to take charge and shoot the puck. One rips off the bar. You want to see that one go in for him, but that's the mindset. When Willy's at his best that's what he's bringing. We saw that last night. I've seen signs of it in some other games, but I thought last night was his most consistent."
Nylander is up to 38 goals on the season, which is already a career high. With three games left, he has his eyes on a round number.
"That would obviously be fun," he said of scoring 40 goals. "It would be nice to get two more."
Keefe is looking for the 26-year-old Swede to build on the momentum created on Saturday.
"It was a good night for a guy like him to really find himself and get that swagger back a little bit so he should feel good about it," Keefe said. "It hasn't gone as well for him and he acknowledges that, but we need to help him work through it and sometimes changing the mix a little bit, like we did last night with both his linemate with O’Reilly going in there and on the power play, sometimes those types of things can work."
Nylander will remain with O'Reilly and on the second power-play unit for Monday's game against the Florida Panthers, who are clinging to a playoff spot.
"Tomorrow night's game will be a different beast in terms of the emotion and intensity in the game and what's at stake, certainly, for the opposition," said Keefe. "It will be another opportunity for us to test all those things."
Minnesota Golden Gophers left winger Matthew Knies signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Leafs on Sunday.
"He had a great year this year and I'm sure it bodes well for his confidence," said Auston Matthews, a fellow Arizona native, who has skated with Knies in the past. "He's a mature kid. Obviously, he's a big boy and I'm sure he can handle [himself]. It's going to be fun to kind of get to know him a little bit better and see him in this atmosphere. I'm sure he's excited even though it was a tough loss the other night."
The Gophers squandered a 2-0 lead and fell 3-2 in overtime to the Quinnipiac Bobcats in the national championship game on Saturday night in Tampa.
"He's an incredible player," said Leafs winger Alex Kerfoot, who played four seasons at Harvard before turning pro. "He's had an incredible season. They came up just short, but it was impressive to watch them throughout the year. We were following along, obviously."
At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Knies appears to have the physical maturity to make an impact in the NHL at age 20.
"It seems like he's a really big kid," agreed Kerfoot. "He can protect the puck really well, can really shoot, pretty dynamic player offensively so looking forward to seeing him. I think that the jump for everyone is a little bit different. He seems like a mature kid. He seems like a really good hockey player and we'll see how it goes."
Knies scored 21 goals in 40 games en route to being named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
"Hadn't really heard too much about him prior to the [Frozen Four] tournament starting," said Northeastern University product Zach Aston-Reese. "I know he was a Hobey Hat Trick candidate like myself (smile) ... not a big deal."
Aston-Reese led the NCAA in scoring as a senior in the 2016-17 season before reporting to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the American Hockey League.
"I went right to Wilkes so it wasn't right to the NHL so I can't speak on that," Aston-Reese said. "I do know the following year it was a wake-up call for me. I feel like that summer I worked hard but didn't work as hard as I needed coming into my first NHL training camp, which is a little bit of a wake-up call."
What did Aston-Reese learn?
"Just how hard it is," he said. "You go from playing 34 to 40 games a year and having five days off between games and plenty of time to recover and work out and get your body ready and it's a lot different with 76 games in the minors and 82 here. So being able to take care of yourself, I mean, the lifestyle is just different than college."
It's perhaps unfair to expect Knies, Toronto's second round pick (57th overall) in 2021, to be a difference maker in the playoffs, but the lure of potential always pulls in fans and even players.
"He's been a pretty big prospect for us for a couple years now so it will be fun to see what he's all about," Matthews said.
Is Nylander curious?
"For sure," he said. "There's a lot of good college players out there that come in and have an impact in the league so hopefully he can do something like that for us."
Mitch Marner admits it's hard not to think about the 100-point milestone.
"It's definitely a cool thing," the winger said. "I try not to focus on stuff like that, but it's hard when you're this close and the opportunity's there. We'll see. I just try and go out there and play my game and see what happens."
Marner scored twice and added an assist against the Canadiens to push his season total to 98 points.
"It felt like he could've gotten to 105 with the number of plays he was making and the stuff he was doing out there," said Keefe. "He was excellent."
There is a case that Marner deserved another assist. He made an area pass to Matthews, which set up his goal. The backhand flip by Marner to the Canadiens slot was kicked right to Matthews by Jake Evans.
"I don't know how the ruling on all that stuff works," said Matthews, "but I thought he had it. Maybe a little extra motivation to keep it churning here and keep it rolling."
"I've had a couple like that where you pass the puck, but they count it as a change of possession so they take it away," Aston-Reese said. "It's a little frustrating, but nonetheless he played amazing last night and getting to 100 will be easy for him."
The Leafs, an Original Six franchise, only have three players who have reached triple digits: Darryl Sittler (twice), Doug Gilmour (twice) and Matthews, who joined the exclusive list last season.
"I've been around the game for a long time, but nowhere close," said O'Reilly, who topped out at 77 points in 2018-19. "For [Marner] to do that, it's an incredible thing. We hope he can achieve that. What impresses me most is the intensity that he plays at and the plays he makes. Every shift he's making something happen. Defensively, offensively, it's been a very special season for him and he's an incredible player."
Asked about Marner's point total, Tavares mentions that the 25-year-old deserves to be in the Selke Trophy conversation as the league's top defensive forward.
"We would love to see it happen," Tavares said of Marner's push for 100 points. "You know he's right there. Extremely well-deserved for the impact he makes in every facet of the game and the type of player he is."
Tavares reached a career high of 88 points while riding shotgun with Marner during the 2018-19 season. Marner tends to make everyone he plays with better.
"He's been such a big driver of our team all year and every year," said Matthews, who won a Hart Trophy with Marner on his wing last season. "But especially this year he's been playing some unbelievable hockey for us and it would be awesome to see him get rewarded."
Marner produced 97 points last season despite missing nine games due to illness and injury. He was also held out of the regular season finale in order to rest up for the playoffs.
Leafs Nation held its collective breath in the second period of Saturday's game when Ilya Samsonov appeared to be in discomfort.
"The first thing I said was, 'Oh no,'" said University of Toronto goalie Jett Alexander, who had signed an amateur tryout earlier in the day to dress as the back-up goalie for the cap-strapped Leafs. "I mean, obviously, worrisome."
But Samsonov remained in the game and finished up another strong performance.
"Sammy never break," he said with a smile. "Everybody knows this."
What's his secret?
"Nothing secret. Born in Russia."
So, what happened?
"Just a little bit squeeze and feel like tight, but nothing crazy," Samsonov explained.
Samsonov tends to be demonstrative when a niggle pops up during a game.
"He has done that a couple of times," Keefe noted. "Something gets a little uncomfortable and it takes a little bit to shake it off. Of course, we were concerned and cautious at that point. The players talked to him. He had no interest in coming out or talking to the trainer. They followed up with him in the TV timeouts. They checked again at the intermission. He was good."
"I know I don't feel bad," Samsonov said.
Samsonov skipped practice on Sunday, but was on the ice for a session with goalie coach Curtis Sanford.
"I feel good and still skating today," Samsonov said.
The Leafs have three games - all on the road - left on the regular season schedule and Samsonov will have a say in how much he plays.
"We're going to talk with him," said Keefe. "We'll get a sense of where he's at with the whole rest versus rust thing and get a feel for what his expectations are and what he feels most comfortable with and that includes tomorrow's game."
Toronto will take on Matthew Tkachuk and the desperate Panthers on Monday before travelling to Tampa Bay for a playoff preview against the Lightning. Does Samsonov, who's 2-0-0 in his career against the Lightning, want to face Nikita Kucherov and company before the playoffs?
"For me, doesn’t matter which game play," Samsonov insisted. "I feel good and I’m ready for everything."
Samsonov played his one and only NHL game in Tampa on Dec. 14, 2019.
It seems like Samsonov wants to play Thursday's game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in order to avoid a long layoff before the playoffs. If he doesn't play on Thursday, he could go seven or eight days between games depending on when the Leafs open the series against the Lightning.
"I want [to] feel my game," he explained. "It's hard to do if I'm eight days getting some rest. I'm talking about this today with goalie coach. If you [sit] eight days, it's a little bit too much. You need to play because you feel good if you play a lot. You don't think about what to do on the ice, you're just doing it automatically. Seriously, it's more easy to play if you play a lot."
Matt Murray was not on the ice as he continues to recover from a head injury sustained last Sunday.
"No change in Murray's status," said Keefe. "At this point, he won’t travel with us."
David Kampf aimed to end a goal drought in a dramatic way on Saturday night. The shutdown centre attempted to score a lacrosse-style goal.
"We were talking about that all night," said Matthews with a grin. "We were going crazy on the bench, in general, but if he would've scored that that would've been pretty sweet. A great try. He was close and just ran out of a little space. Kampfer is maybe not known for that part of his game, but he's definitely got some skill hidden in there for sure."
Kampf had the puck on his blade behind the net and goalie Sam Montembeault didn't see it, but defenceman Mike Matheson intervened with his stick.
"We were loving it on the bench," said Marner. "I wish he pulled it off."
"I wish he connected on it," echoed Nylander. "Maybe he'll try it again soon."
Kampf only has seven goals on the year and his dry spell extended to 18 games on Saturday.
"I was a little bit shocked," said linemate Aston-Reese. "Like, I didn't know what I was seeing at first. I was kind of hoping he was going to hold it and wait for me to come down the slot. It was cool to see. He actually almost pulled it off. I know he's using this stuff called Rezztek. I don't know if he has a sponsorship or what, but that would have maybe solidified it for him."
Kampf doesn't use traditional hockey tape on his stick and he takes some good-natured ribbing from teammates about it.
"We joke that he's got Rezztek tape on his stick," said Kerfoot. "He's had that tape on there for three years. It's ready for the 'Michigan' and we've been waiting to see it."
"I played around with his stick one practice a while ago," said Matthews, "but I don't know if it stays dry the whole game or what the deal is with it. He's like the poster boy for that brand so it works for him and that would've been pretty sweet if he pulled it off."
According to the company's website, "Rezztek significantly improves the speed and accuracy of your shot. The durability of Rezztek is a bonus to all players who don't necessary enjoy taping their stick every day." Nashville defenceman Roman Josi, Boston forward Tyler Bertuzzi and Vancouver defenceman Filip Hronek are among the players listed on website as using Rezztek.
The Leafs' top power-play unit converted on four of six chances against the Canadiens.
"I thought the group had some swagger to it and it was important for us to get them some touches together," said Keefe. "They communicated well and took charge."
It was the first time O'Reilly joined the top unit. He picked up a pair of assists while operating from the bumper/middle spot.
"He's such a steady presence out there and always in good spots," said Matthews. "Such a smart player and hard on pucks. He does so many things well."
With Morgan Rielly resting, Erik Gustafsson took over as quarterback of the top unit and delivered three assists. Gustafsson continued to get reps with the top unit at practice and O'Reilly remained with the top unit as well.
"I wouldn't experiment with anything I'm not considering," said Keefe.
Versatile forward Calle Jarnkrok went for an MRI to get a better look at the nagging injury that kept him out of Saturday's game.
"The results came back good," said Keefe. "He will travel with us and we may see him on the ice tomorrow if not the next day. He's close."
Lines at Sunday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Tavares - O'Reilly - Nylander
Kerfoot - Acciari - Simmonds
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Lafferty
McCabe - Brodie
Giordano - Holl
Rielly - Liljegren
Gustafsson - Schenn
Power play units at Sunday's practice:
Flanks: Matthews, Marner
Net front: Tavares
Flanks: Nylander, Kerfoot/Giordano
Net front: Bunting