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Leafs plan to get in Thompson's space in bid to build momentum

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The Maple Leafs held a meeting at KeyBank Center in Buffalo on Saturday.


The Leafs shut down Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in a comprehensive 5-1 win on Thursday. The performance came on the heels of what coach Sheldon Keefe labelled an "immature" effort in a 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday. 

"It was a complete game by the whole team," said forward Connor Dewar. "We weren't really happy with our last performance so this was a bit of a statement for us."

Toronto will look to keep that momentum going on Saturday night against Tage Thompson and the Buffalo Sabres

"Just continuing the same mindset," Keefe instructed. "That's really what it's about, as we showed the other night."

The coach kept all his regulars off the ice on Saturday morning rather than holding an optional morning skate, which is the usual routine. 

"We didn't practise after the Jersey game," he said. "We had a discussion as a team, you show some clips, and you go out and it's a different mindset. We showed the team knows how to play and knows what we need to do."

The Sabres overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat the Devils on Friday night in Buffalo. Thompson scored four goals. 

"Just get in his space," said Leafs winger Bobby McMann. "You make him rush plays, he's not going to have the puck on his stick. We'll obviously be aware of him, but with the way that we pressure, and we've been playing hard lately and physical ... it shouldn't be a problem."  

Thompson has been a problem in the past, though, with 12 points in his last 10 games against Toronto. 

The Leafs suffered their most lopsided loss of the season in Buffalo on Dec. 21 when they fell 9-3. Keefe referenced that result during a team meeting on Friday. 

"A lot has changed since then, but it's a reminder of what this opponent is capable of," Keefe noted. "When you don't play an organized game then you open up the possibility for something like that to happen. It's just a reminder of that. I don't think we need to go to far into it. It's more so the New Jersey example in terms of the chances we gave up and the type of game we played there. We gave up free offence."

New Jersey plays a similar style to Buffalo, which is also something Keefe also highlighted with his players. 

"The opponent tonight is probably more like New Jersey and less like Washington," Keefe said. "That in and of itself creates different challenges in terms of their skill set, ability to play in transition, and the pace they can bring from the defence. We are going to be challenged in different ways than we were the other night. We are going to have to be that much more focused on it and be good on offence ourselves while making sure we are managing the puck really well. Play in the offensive zone and make it harder on their top people by forcing them to defend."

The Leafs have stubbed their toe against non-playoff opponents in the past. Buffalo is 2-0-1 against the Leafs this year while the Columbus Blue Jackets won two of three meetings with Toronto. 

"Whether it's New Jersey, Buffalo, Columbus, like, there's a ton of skill on these teams," Keefe said. "Some of the best offensive teams in the NHL in terms of playmaking, controlled entries, rush play, all these sorts of things. You look at them as maybe teams that you should be able to win against, well, these guys make it really hard on you if you don't play with detail and structure and discipline in your game."

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McMann scored a goal and fired a season-high seven shots on net during Thursday's win. The 27-year-old, who started the year in the AHL, is making the most of a chance to play on the second line beside John Tavares and William Nylander

"They're elite players and it's a little different playing with them," McMann said. "You never know when you're going to get the puck or what they're going to do with it so you always got to be ready, but it's been good so far."

"I've liked it a lot," said Keefe.

McMann has scored four goals in the last five games. But there have also been hiccups. During Tuesday's game against the Devils, Nylander barked at McMann after he shot instead of passing to him in the slot. 

"They just demand high execution all the time," McMann said. "They expect you to make plays and that's the type of game I want to play. It's pushing me to be a better player and get them the puck and vice versa, because I think we're all good enough that we can make plays."

Keefe is more worried about the defensive side of things. McMann got caught up ice, which created a 2-on-1 goal for the Devils. 

"It's important for Bobby to continue to stay doing the things he's been doing," Keefe stressed. "Driving play with his speed, keeping the defence honest, backing them off, winning pucks back for his linemates, doing a job defensively, all those kind of things, being a responsible F3 when it's his turn to do that, all that sort of stuff. The detail of his game, we need him to stay on top of that and he’s been having a ton of success offensively, but he’s doing lots of little things well too, we just got to make sure those details don't slip."

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Ilya Lyubushkin, who played 68 games for the Sabres last season before being traded to Anaheim in the summer, will face his old team for the fourth time this season. 

"It's a good group of guys here, good people," the defenceman, who was acquired by the Leafs earlier this month, said. "I meet a lot of friends here, like, not just in the team. My neighbours, we still in touch with them, it's nice."

One of his neighbours made the trip to Toronto to see him earlier this year. Why did they hit it off? 

"Our properties, like, so close to each other," Lyubushkin recalled. "They have a small pond where my kids can fish in. I ask them if it's possible. They say, 'Yes, of course.' We ride four wheelers together. Yeah, it's nice."

This will be Lyubushkin's second game back in Buffalo. 

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The Leafs have killed off all four opposition power plays in the last two games. 

"We've put a lot time into it," Keefe said. "It was necessary to do so, obviously."

Despite the modest recent success, the Leafs remain 25th overall in penalty-kill percentage this season (76.5).  

"We start to play more aggressive," Lyubushkin said. "We listen to our coach and try to play what way they want to." 

"The guys have just bought in," Keefe said. "We've made some adjustments to it and the guys have responded really well despite a lack of practice time. The early returns have been good, but it's a small sample at this point. We want to continue to build on it."

The Leafs did penalty-kill reps at Tuesday's morning skate and worked on it again at Friday's practice. 

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Ilya Samsonov gets the start on Saturday. It will be his first game action since sustaining a calf contusion and leaving last Saturday's game against the Edmonton Oilers late in the third period. 

"We really need to prepare for playoff and figure out how we want to play in the playoffs," Samsonov said earlier this week. "This last repetition for us, last 10 games, really important time right now. You know, like, we need to play really hard every game because in the playoff it change really quick. Yeah, every team will play hard, angry, you know, it's different hockey. We need to get ready for this."

Samsonov allowed five goals on 19 shots before being pulled in Buffalo back in December. He exacted some revenge on the Sabres by stopping 24 of 25 shots in an overtime win on March 6. 

 

ContentId(1.2096015): Ready to return, Samsonov reveals what forced him to leave Saturday's game

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Jake McCabe has already established a career-high with seven goals this season. With 25 points, the defenceman has also matched his career high in that category. 

"I've just liked the consistency throughout the year more than anything," he said when asked about his offensive contribution. "At the start of the year, I didn't really love my game, but after that I feel like I've been confident in my game and confident in my defending. That's probably more where offence comes from, frankly, is defending hard and creating transition and getting the puck up to these skilled guys."

Was there a turning point? 

"No, no," he said with a smile. "It's just a long season."

McCabe also produced 25 points last season, which he split between Chicago and Toronto. 

"I played with Caber in Chicago last year and same exact player he was back then," said Leafs forward Max Domi. "He's always been a physical presence. He can make a lot of good little plays on the break out and he has more offensive upside than I think people realize. He can make a lot of good plays all over the ice."

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It meant a lot for Nick Robertson to play against Ovechkin on Thursday. 

"It's surreal," the 22-year-old winger said. "Ovi and [Sidney] Crosby were the two big guys growing up. I remember seeing Ovi play Sid in Washington when I was younger and I was wearing a Crosby jersey and everyone was booing me walking around. It's all for good fun."

Robertson's agent, Pat Brisson, also reps Crosby. 

"I always asked questions," Robertson recalled, "and he became my favourite player." 

The stroll down memory lane was a reminder of just how young Robertson is. 

Robertson currently finds himself playing on a line with fellow youngsters Pontus Holmberg, 24, and Matthew Knies, 21. 

"As a young guy you want to play with a lot of speed, a lot of offence, but one thing for us is making sure our habits and our details and little things are good enough to get the coach's trust to play more," Robertson said. 

Robertson will play his 80th NHL game on Saturday. For Holmberg, it will be his 82nd NHL outing while Knies is suiting up in his 74th game with the Leafs. 

"They are three young guys who we think and hope will be in the organization for a long time," Keefe said. "They are going to continue to build and grow. Those are three players who are all trying to find their way in the league, but as they get more comfortable, I think there are great possibilities there. The skill sets match well. We have liked what we have seen from it."

The coach acknowledges that, when his team is entirely healthy, these three players will not be on a line together. For most of the season, they've been flanked with veteran teammates, which makes this latest stretch feel a lot different. 

"You can ask Holmer, me, Kniesy, we always played with guys that are guys that need the pucks on their sticks," said Robertson. "They obviously get paid a lot to have the puck on their sticks. It's nice being with younger guys, you kind of are more comfortable to talk to and more comfortable to take the shot. It's nice to have a different look just being with younger guys. Playing with anyone on this team is nice, but to get a young look, it's good to play with those guys."  

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The Leafs recalled defenceman Marshall Rifai from the AHL on Saturday. 

"We are down to six defencemen and the way things have been going it's important to have an additional guy," Keefe said. "He'll be in warm-up tonight."

Mitch Marner was placed on long-term injured reserve retroactive to March 7 when he sustained a high-ankle sprain in Boston. Marner is eligible to be activated on Monday when the Leafs host the Florida Panthers although Keefe already said the winger will not play in that game. 

 

ContentId(1.2097023): SC Timeline: How the Leafs have fared without Marner

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Projected Leafs lineup for Saturday's game: 

Bertuzzi - Matthews - Domi 
McMann - Tavares - Nylander 
Knies - Holmberg - Robertson 
Dewar - Kampf - Reaves 

Brodie - Lyubushkin 
Benoit - McCabe  
Giordano - Timmins 

Samsonov starts