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Masters: Tavares staying professional, producing in third-line role

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs and Vegas Golden Knights practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Monday. 

John Tavares missed two of the first three games during the Toronto Maple Leafs' current seven-game win streak. Max Domi took his spot as second-line centre against the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 13 when Tavares was sick. Tyler Bertuzzi moved into his position on the top power-play unit. 

Tavares returned to his usual spots in the next game against the Philadelphia Flyers, but sustained a minor undisclosed injury, which forced him to miss the following game against the Anaheim Ducks. Domi picked up a couple assists in a rout of the Ducks while Bertuzzi snapped a 19-game drought with a power-play goal. 

When Tavares returned to the lineup on Feb. 19 in St. Louis, the 33-year-old centre found himself on the third line and second power-play unit. What was the conversation like when Sheldon Keefe asked his captain to accept a reduced role? 

"I don't know if I would say I asked him, first of all," Keefe clarified. "It was more just talking him through it and explaining why I thought the timing was right for it, both in terms of how it affects the team and how it impacts the others who have been playing well and had built some positive momentum over the last little bit. The times when John missed two of the three games gave us some different looks. We wanted to continue to build on it."

Tavares found himself skating between Bobby McMann and Nick Robertson, who have combined for 113 NHL games played, while Domi slotted in with Bertuzzi and William Nylander, who leads the team in points.

"You just want to do what you can to help the team and obviously [something Keefe] felt was necessary to do," said Tavares. "You control what you can control and be ready to play every time your name's called to go over the boards, and continue to push to get better."

Tavares scored even-strength goals on Wednesday in Arizona and Thursday in Las Vegas, which snapped a 27-game drought in 5-on-5 play. Domi scored twice in Vegas, which was his first multi-goal game as a Leaf. Bertuzzi netted a hat trick on Saturday in Colorado, including two tallies on the power play. 

"I don't think it has been a perfect experiment so far, but we have been getting good results in terms of the team winning," said Keefe. "Guys have been producing and feeling good. I still feel there is a way to go for each of those lines to develop chemistry. For the most part, both lines have been getting out-chanced when they are out there."

"I think it's been a good week for myself," Tavares said. "Playing with Robby and Bobby, doing some really good things, and obviously want to keep getting better."

Spreading the core four forwards across three lines is something Keefe has looked at briefly in the past, but it's usually Nylander who is asked to move down and drive the third line. 

Bruce Cassidy points out a similar alignment worked for his Vegas Golden Knights last season.  

"We were able to do it last year and I think it can get to teams," the Knights coach said. "Eventually you'll get, I don't know if 'mismatch' is the right word, but you should get an advantage if you're able to consistently do it, and that helped us a lot late in the year and in the playoffs."

When healthy, the Knights can boast Jack Eichel, Chandler Stephenson and William Karlsson down the middle. 

"Toronto has the ability to do it with their talent and so do we when we're healthy," Cassidy continued. "I would never call Karlsson a third-line centre in this league but he's a luxury to play against the other teams third-line centre."

Of course, the key to the spread offence look is getting the player who is playing fewer minutes to buy in. 

"John is all about the team and doing whatever is asked of him," said Keefe. "It was pretty straightforward, as I expected it would be. John is all business. He gets it. He is focused on one thing, which is helping our team win in the end. He is on board with anything that can help with that. He has handled it terrifically since then in terms of his play, his demeanour, and not having it affect his role as a leader and a captain."

Tavares is averaging 15 minutes and 55 seconds of ice time in the last four games, which is down from 18 minutes and 22 seconds in his first 51 games of the season. 

"The individual has to be willing to maybe sacrifice for the good of the team," Cassidy said. "Maybe your individual numbers aren't as good, but there's better balance. I think it's going to help Toronto and it looks like it has recently, but we'll see over time."

Tavares, like usual, was among the last players on the ice after practice doing extra work. 

"We got a really strong hockey club so the goal's to go out there and win and do something really special," Tavares said. "So just try to do whatever you can to contribute to that."

ContentId(1.2081260): Captain conscientious: Tavares takes reduced role in stride


While Tavares has struggled to produce in 5-on-5 play this season, he has been a consistent contributor on the power play. Seven of his 17 goals this season have come on the man advantage. It wasn't long ago he scored a power-play goal in three straight games. 

"The power play is a big one for him," Keefe acknowledged. "He had been having so much success there with us ... but he is focused on one thing. He has his priorities straight and knows what is important. With where he is in his career and where we are as a team, he gets it. He has handled it tremendously."

Tavares led the Leafs by scoring a career-high 18 power-play goals last season. But getting Bertuzzi going is a key for the Leafs. He signed a $5.5 million deal in the summer with the expectation he would supply significant secondary scoring. Prior to the power-play promotion, Bertuzzi had just six goals in 51 games. 

"He has the skill set to play the net front," said Keefe. "He and Tavares are very similar in that skill set. John has done a very good job for us in that net front spot and has for years. The power play has been outstanding for us all season long whether it is John or Bert there, but I think there is a very similar skill set and tenacity around the net."

The Leafs power play is clicking at 56.3 per cent (9/16) since Bertuzzi joined the top unit. 

"He just fits in well because he's still a very elite tipper, gets good sticks on pucks," said Mitch Marner, who set up Bertuzzi's first power-play goal on Saturday. "He gets in kind of around the net. He's great at screening the goalie."

"I feel good out there," Bertuzzi said. "Just trying to find little holes here and there. You saw [Saturday] they'll find you and you just got to find the openings."

Generating chemistry with Marner, Nylander and Auston Matthews on the top unit isn't as easy as it may seem. 

"It's pretty tough to be out there with a couple of us because we always want the puck, we're trying to call for the puck," noted Marner. "We want it and usually that middle guy usually doesn't have fun. He's just trying to skate around and be the net front and get rebounds and tips and stuff like that. He's just done a great job of finding quiet ice and he got rewarded for it."

Bertuzzi's shooting percentage was 6.2 per cent in the first 51 games of the season. He's scoring on 30.8 per cent of his shots in the last five games. 

"If you look at the types of goals that he scored, he has been getting those shots and those chances all season long," Keefe pointed out. "The puck hasn't fallen for him. That is why you just stay with it. We have increased his opportunities to get even more of those types of looks. We are thrilled for him."

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The Leafs recalled goaltender Joseph Woll from his AHL conditioning stint on Monday. 

"I'm really looking forward to helping this team out," the 25-year-old said. "It's been a bit of a hiatus, but I'm excited to be back here."

Woll stopped 36 of 37 shots to help the Toronto Marlies win in Laval on Friday night. It was his first game action since suffering a high ankle sprain on Dec. 7. 

"It felt great," Woll said of the ankle. "The aim in your rehab is to try and get to a spot where you feel comfortable and you don't have to think about it. That was the spot I was hoping to get to, and in the game I wasn't thinking about it too much. I was able to go on autopilot and just play, so I was really happy with that."

Woll started the season strong with a .916 save percentage in 15 games with the Leafs before getting hurt. This is his first full season in the NHL. 

"Those first few months of the season was a good experience for me," he said. "I was able to learn a lot and learn kind of the day-to-day of being an NHLer and playing a lot of games. So it was a good experience for me and I'm excited to use it here coming back." 

Woll is back with the Leafs, but hasn't been activated off the long term injured reserve quite yet. 

"Today was an important day just to get him back with the NHL guys and see where he is at after last week," Keefe said. "He looks good and says he feels good. Since the practice has ended, I have not had a chance to talk to the medical team about what comes next."

Woll and Ilya Samsonov each had their own net at practice. Martin Jones didn't take part in practice, but did some work on a separate pad. 

"For today, in order to get a full assessment of Woll, we had Jones do a goalie session," Keefe explained. "We wanted to keep it to just two goalies on the ice, give them each their own net, and it will be a day-to-day thing here as we are getting Joe back up to speed and managing the three guys."

ContentId(1.2081241): After strong AHL start, Woll eager to get back in Leafs net


It's possible the Leafs decide to carry three goalies rather than risk losing Jones on waivers. 

"I wouldn't have any problem with that," said Keefe. "I think we can manage it. That will, of course, be up to [general manager Brad Treliving] and how he manages the roster."

Jones is 3-4-1 with an .867 save percentage since Jan. 10, but may have saved the Leafs season with strong play in December and early January when Samsonov struggled and Woll got hurt.

"Specific to Martin with his experience, character, and the type of person I have come to know, he has tremendous value for us," Keefe said. 

Samsonov, who cleared waivers on Jan. 1, leaned on Jones as he attempted to get his game back on track. 

"He helped me a lot with talking about this," the 27-year-old said. "He's older than us and he more understands this league and what you need to do ... He's really strong mental. It doesn't matter what's going on, he's forgot about this and come to next game like a new day. It's really great." 

Jones, 34, backstopped the San Jose Sharks to the Stanley Cup final in 2016. He started 42 games with the Seattle Kraken last season and posted an .887 save percentage before signing a one-year deal worth $875,000 with the Leafs. 

Jones is a valuable insurance policy considering Woll's inexperience and Samsonov's struggles to start the season. But carrying three goalies can be tricky. 

"I would say just keeping them sharp is usually the toughest  thing when you have three," said Cassidy. "It's getting the appropriate amount of starts for everybody, because you just feel like there's not enough to go around. Practice, who gets the net? How do you split the other net?"

"It brings healthy competition," said Knights goalie Adin Hill. "At times it can be a little frustrating, I guess, if you're the third guy like I was for a while. It's sometimes tough to get your reps in at practice and all that, but it brings a good, healthy competition to the group."

ContentId(1.2081263): Keefe would be comfortable with Leafs carrying three goalies


Jones got the win in Vegas last week. Samsonov is expected to start Tuesday's rematch. 

"It's strong team," Samsonov said. "Tomorrow is probably a different game than game in Vegas. These guys come more angry. It's probably hard game for us."

The Leafs built a 4-0 lead in the first period and cruised a 7-3 win in Vegas. 

"We didn't play well and our guys are a proud group and a competitive group," Cassidy said. "They'll want to put their best foot forward."

Hill was pulled in the first period after allowing three goals on 20 shots.  

"I rarely pull the goalies," said Cassidy. "Probably once a year, each guy, on average. It just happened to be a night where I felt we weren't playing well so it's a message to the group and Logan [Thompson] had come off a shutout against San Jose ... We didn't respond well enough in front of Logan either. I wouldn't put it on Hilly. It was just our team performance." 

Hill is 1-0-1 with a .919 save percentage in Toronto. 

"It's nice to get back in there against the same team again, get another crack at them," said Hill. "I'm excited. I always like playing in Toronto. It's always a good atmosphere and a fun building to play in."

Thompson started Saturday's shootout loss in Ottawa. 

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Right-shot defenceman Timothy Liljegren missed Monday's practice. 

"He is day-to-day and not ruled out for tomorrow," Keefe said. "We needed to give him one extra day today. We will see where he is at in the morning. He got banged up the other night and left the bench a couple of times in the third period. He wasn't able to finish the game. He just needs a little more time to settle down. In terms of his availability for tomorrow, it is up in the air. We will see where he is at when we come to the rink tomorrow."

Liljegren has been skating alongside T.J. Brodie on the top pair. Jake McCabe took that spot at practice while Morgan Rielly moved up to the second pair beside Simon BenoitMark Giordano joined William Lagesson on the third pair. Giordano was away from the team last week following the passing of his father. 

If Liljegren is unable to play, the Leafs will be dressing an all-lefty defence group. 

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The first five games of Toronto's win streak coincided with Rielly's suspension. 

"I was definitely nervous about coming in because the team was rolling," the longest-serving Leaf admitted with a smile. "So that was a little nerve-wracking. I'm grateful we got two wins."

Rielly averages 24 minutes and 11 seconds of ice time per game to lead the Leafs this season. He played 18:37 in Vegas and then 20:43 in Colorado. 

"You're just trying to find your game again, just trying to get into a rhythm," said Rielly, who paired with Lagesson on the road. "It's not as easy as it seems."

"As much as he has played in the league a ton and is a great player for us — and an important leader — it is tough to come in at a time like that," Keefe acknowledged. "It is also tough to miss five games and then jump on the treadmill. We have tried to ease him back in and manage the minutes a little bit. Some of it is because of him. Some of it is because some of the other guys have done a great job."

Rielly plans to be better after getting Monday's practice under his belt. 

"I expect to be back and playing like my usual self," he said. "The guys have been great and very supportive. Obviously without me they were playing outstanding so I'm just trying not to upset the apple cart."

"He is an important guy for us," Keefe stressed. "With the nature of why he left our lineup, I think his fingerprints are all over this streak that we have put together and how the team has played. It started with him."

Rielly was suspended for cross-checking Ridly Greig up high after the Senators forward took a slap shot into Toronto's empty net with seconds left in an Ottawa win on Feb. 10. 

ContentId(1.2080818): Rielly 'trying not to upset the apple cart' in return to Leafs lineup


Eichel is with the Knights on the road, but will not play on Tuesday. 

"Jack is skating on his own," Cassidy said. "I don't have a timeline for you exactly. When he's with our group we can better answer that. I don't know if he'll make an appearance on this trip."

Vegas will play in Boston, Buffalo and Columbus before heading home on March 5. 

Eichel hasn't played since Jan. 11, when he suffered a lower-body injury that required surgery to correct.  


Captain Mark Stone joined Eichel on the injured list last week. 

"They're probably our two best forwards, so it's tough when you're missing guys like that," said Hill. "We found our identity a little last game against Ottawa so just try and build off that and roll it into tomorrow." 

Vegas is 0-1-1 since Stone got hurt and the defending champions have dropped four of their last five games overall. Cassidy blames a late-arriving Cup hangover. 

"We didn't have it in October," he said. "It hit us in January and February. Maybe that's the learning curve we're going through is the hangover comes later in the dog days."

Cassidy hopes the injury adversity will help his group snap out of it.  

"The good thing about having guys out is your urgency should be there for the rest of the group," he said. "Like, listen, we got to get in. We're not automatic and you never are in this league. If you have a bad couple of weeks anything can happen." 


Leafs winger Calle Jarnkrok is now handling pucks and taking shots as he continues to work his way back from a broken knuckle sustained on Jan. 26. 

"He has made progress, but he isn't to the point where he could join us in full practice today," Keefe said. "He will get on the ice with the guys tomorrow morning in the optional morning skate and hope to build toward a full practice. The target for him is closer to the weekend or into next week."


Lines at Monday's Leafs practice: 


Knies - Matthews - Marner

Bertuzzi - Domi - Nylander

McMann - Tavares - Robertson

Holmberg - Kampf - Reaves



Brodie - McCabe 

Rielly - Benoit 

Giordano - Lagesson





Penalty kill units at Monday's Leafs practice: 


Brodie - Giordano 

Benoit - McCabe 


Marner - Kampf

Marner - Matthews 

McMann - Nylander 

Kampf - Matthews 

McMann - Holmberg