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Leafs' Robertson looks to retain bragging rights in battle with big brother

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The Maple Leafs skated (optional) at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. 


Leafs winger Nick Robertson will clash with Stars winger and big brother Jason Robertson for the fourth time in the NHL on Wednesday night when Dallas makes their only trip to Toronto this season.

"It's always pretty cool, especially at this level," Nick said. "We're pretty competitive and dedicated."

The Leafs have won all the previous sibling showdowns. Jason has been held off the scoresheet in each game.

"He definitely didn't want to reflect last time," Nick noted. "We've won every time, so I want to keep it like that."

"I asked him about it yesterday and he said it gets pretty heated between them," said Leafs winger Matthew Knies with a smile. 

The Stars played on Tuesday night in Buffalo, so the brothers didn't get a chance to catch up before the game. And they won't be saying anything on the ice. 

"We don't talk to each other," Nick revealed. "That's the way he is. Whether it's a buddy of his or anything, he doesn't say anything until after the game."

Nick notes that he is also quiet on the ice. The pair tend to do their talking with their shots. 

"They both like to shoot, and they both like to score goals," said Leafs centre Max Domi, who played for Dallas last season. 

"They know how to score goals and they know how to beat goalies clean," added Knies. 

While Jason, 24, is an established star in the league, Nick, 22, is still working towards being a regular every-day player. Jason has 50 points in 50 games to lead the Stars. Nick has seven goals and 14 points in 30 games. 

"I love them both," said Domi. "They're both great guys and both great hockey players. It will be fun for them tonight for sure. I remember seeing some clips where Nick scored some big goals or had some big plays against his big bro, so I'm looking forward to that tonight."

Nick scored twice, including the overtime winner, the last time the brothers played in Toronto on Oct. 20, 2022. The Leafs could use another big performance on Wednesday. Toronto is currently in a wild-card spot and only four points up on the ninth-place New York Islanders, who beat them on Monday. 

"These are playoff-type games," Nick stressed. "I think teams that are in a battle like us have to compete every night. We can't take a back seat and go in cruise control on these games." 

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Nick is averaging just under 11 minutes of ice time per game while slotting in beside Domi on the third line. He only played eight minutes and 38 seconds on Monday against the Islanders but will likely be leaned on more against a deeper Dallas team. 

"We need to get more from our bottom guys," coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledged. "This is a group here tonight, more so than the team we had the other day with the Islanders, they're going to use four lines. They're going to have everybody involved. There's not a lot of easy shifts against this team, so we're going to need all of our guys through the lineup to be good tonight." 

With Calle Jarnkrok out, Nick has shifted from his natural left side to the right wing. 

"If there's one true advantage to playing on your off side it's on the break out," said Keefe. "A lot of pucks come up along the boards against the pinch and your stick is on the wall and you can protect it. [For] any young player that wall play in your own zone is a great challenge at the NHL level, so that's an area where we think it could help him."

The Leafs also feel Noah Gregor, a lefty who has moved up to that line, is better on his strong side. 

"With Jarny out, he kind of complements what Jarny brings with his speed," Robertson said of Gregor. "We complement each other with our speed. Our line needs guys like that, so he fits perfectly."

Gregor is looking to snap a 19-game goal drought. 

Robertson, who is in the final year of his entry-level deal, is the only Leafs player on the latest TSN trade bait list, but TSN Hockey Insider Chris Johnston says he's unlikely to be moved before the March 8 deadline. 

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After potting 20 goals last season in 80 games split between Chicago and Dallas, Domi has scored just four times this season. He's goalless in eight straight and has just one tally in an 18-game stretch dating back to Dec. 23. 

"Just keep working hard and getting the reps in practice and finding a way to get that confidence back," he said of his mindset. "The best way to do that is to work as hard as you possibly can on and off the ice and get your mental reps in and be ready to go."

Tyler Bertuzzi, who like Domi signed a one-year deal in the summer, is in a similar situation. The second-line winger has just one goal in 28 games dating back to Nov. 28. He's stuck on six goals this season. 

"Just got to keep working hard, keep trying to do the right things," said Bertuzzi, who scored a career-high 30 goals during the 2021-22 season while playing for the Detroit Red Wings. "We're getting the looks, so eventually one will go in." 

Knies is goalless in 16 games despite spending most of his shifts on the top line beside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. 

"We got to stick to what we're doing," the rookie insisted. "Everyone's getting chances. I'm getting chances around the net. I'm getting shots and creating opportunities. It's a matter of execution and just getting the bounce. With those opportunities coming, it's just a matter of time. I think we're all itching to score and contribute, but got to stick to the little things I do well and the little details and I think it will just come."

How can the coaching staff help the snakebitten scorers snap their slumps? 

"Just show them the opportunities they're getting, the chances that are there, and you just got to stay with it," Keefe said. "There's nothing else you can do. We've had no issues at generating scoring chances. You just got to be persistent, stay with it. Shoot the puck, be assertive, guys away from the puck disrupt the goaltenders, all those sorts of things. That's really all you can do. And, at the same time, recognize while you're going through that, you got to give up less if you want to win games, so that's the balance you got strike there."

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Knies is playing in his first full professional season. 

"It's been my longest season so far," the 21-year-old said. "We just had that week break where I could let loose and just get my energy back and catch up on some sleep and get all that back. I feel refreshed and I'm just ready for the second half."

Knies only played 40 games at the University of Minnesota last season before making his NHL debut and playing 10 games with the Leafs. Knies will play his 47th game of this season on Wednesday. 

"It's pretty challenging after games to fall asleep," he acknowledged. "You got to find ways to recover better – whether it's taking a nap during the day or going in the tubs. Using the resources we have here, I think it makes it a little bit easier. Yeah, it's things like that that I have to adjust to. Still getting used to it and it's been getting better throughout the season."

Knies seemed to have an extra bounce in his step late in Monday's game. He made a nice play to set up Matthews, who fired a shot that hit both posts and the crossbar before bouncing out. 

"I don't think I've ever seen it that close," Knies said. "It's pretty crazy watching that clip ... It's just right on the goal line there. It's unfortunate. It's a bad bounce for us for sure."

Knies has identified a few key areas to focus on down the stretch. 

"Being better on the walls, getting off the boards in the O-zone, and just doing well with managing the puck on the defensive side," he said. "Just making sure I make simple plays around those areas, around the lines, and that's going to make us play more offence and stay out of our D-zone more often."

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With David Kampf (undisclosed) joining Jarnkrok (broken knuckle) on the injured list this week, the Leafs are down two of their top three penalty-killing forwards. 

William Nylander took Kampf's spot alongside Marner on the top unit during both kills on Monday. 

"He's been asking questions," Marner said. "He's been learning a lot. He's got great IQ out there. He's got a great stick. He's got great footwork and speed. It was just about him getting comfortable at that role and then you knew he was going to be good at it. It's coming through now and it's great to see."

Nylander started both kills by winning a draw, which allowed the Leafs to clear the zone. 

"Willy did a good job for us in the faceoff circle when we needed him to," Keefe said. "We had back-to-back penalties close together there. It was hard. You don't have a lot of PKers. You are experimenting with some guys and trying some different things. We got through that." 

Nylander has already played 37 minutes and 47 seconds shorthanded this season. He logged almost 19 minutes last season when the Leafs started experimenting with him in the role. 

Nylander was not available to the media after Tuesday's practice. 

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Ilya Samsonov allowed three goals on 29 shots in Monday's loss. Did he feel any rust coming off the break? 

"I practised a couple times on the ice," he noted. "Still, it's not easy. Practice is not like a game ... Your mental [side] is back, yeah. I think just more goalie reflex is a little bit slower than normal and that's why you see a lot of soccer saves."

Samsonov, who won three straight decisions before the bye week and All-Star break, made the wrong read on the Kyle MacLean breakaway goal in the second period. He thought the Islanders rookie, who scored his first career NHL goal, was going to shoot rather than deke. Backup goalie Martin Jones had a similar view from the bench. 

"I talk with Jonesy, he said he thinks he will shoot 100 per cent," Samsonov said. "I think about it too. I go too low a little bit. It's a good move. You know, we play in NHL and most guys know how to do a one-on-one."

At one point on Monday, Samsonov was slow to get up and seemed to be favouring his left leg following a pad save. 

"Sometimes it is not easy to be goalie," the 26-year-old said with a grin. "I'm not too young. I'm not 18 anymore." 

Samsonov will start again on Wednesday. 

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Monday's loss dropped the Leafs to 11-10-2 at home (.522 points percentage) which is 19th overall. Toronto is 14-5-6 (.680) on the road, which is tied for fourth overall. 

"It's hard to figure with that," said Keefe. "The old cliche part of it perhaps would be maybe you focus a little bit more on just playing a good hard road game and simplifying things, where at home perhaps you're trying to do a little more or trying to show well and get leads and play ahead and do all those sorts of things. There's an extra bit of patience [on the road] that maybe is a little harder to get at home. We have talked about some of those sorts of things but, I don't know, it's the kind of thing that can flip at any time, I believe." 

Toronto dropped five of six games at home in the playoffs last season. 

"When you get on the road sometimes you're just playing a little more free," Domi said. "There's certain aspects of the game where you just start playing and you're not thinking and everyone's getting into the game and everyone's chipping in in their own way. Sometimes at home, for whatever reason, we get a little bit disconnected here or there. We could be in control of a game and then we're not. There's things we can clean up and we all know in house what that is and we'll just be better at that every single night." 

The Stars are the best road team in the NHL this season with a 15-5-4 record (.708). 

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Projected Leafs lineup for Wednesday's game: 

Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
Gregor - Domi - Robertson 
McMann - Holmberg - Reaves

Rielly - Brodie
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Liljegren

Samsonov starts 
Jones