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Marner set to return to Leafs’ lineup, but not beside Matthews

Auston Matthews Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews Mitch Marner - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre on Friday before travelling to Montreal. 


Mitch Marner is poised to return to the Leafs’ lineup on Saturday in Montreal, but he won't be reunited with Auston Matthews on the top line. Matthews continued to be flanked by Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi at practice. 

"We're happy with how the line with Domi and Bertuzzi has gone with Matthews," explained coach Sheldon Keefe. "That opens up some opportunity to look at some different things."

Marner, who has been sidelined since sustaining a high-ankle sprain on March 7, skated on the second line with John Tavares and Bobby McMann

"We've found a good groove with Auston and his line and John and Bobby have played really well together as well," said Keefe. "Mitch has played a lot with John and that's gone well."

William Nylander, who is second on the team in scoring, is being bumped to the third line with Pontus Holmberg and Matthew Knies. The Leafs experimented with spreading the core four forwards over three lines earlier this season, but back then it was Tavares on the third line. 

"To have those guys on different lines presents some really good options and spreads out our scoring depth," Keefe said. 


ContentId(1.2099952): Marner's return sparks Leafs' spread-offence experiment; Nylander to third line


Domi and Matthews have hit it off since joining forces midway through a game in Philadelphia on March 19. They started together the next night in Washington where Matthews produced five points and Domi had four assists. They've been together ever since. 

"He's probably the best player in the world right now," Domi told TSN before a game on March 26. "He's so good at both ends of the ice and makes something happen out of nothing. He's a lot of fun to play with. Really responsible defensively and such a big, strong body, so absolutely enjoying every second of it."

Matthews has scored eight goals in the eight full games he's played with Domi.  

"Auston and Max have found a real good chemistry with the give-and-go game, which is something you see with Mitch in that spot a lot," said Keefe. "The chemistry of Auston and [Max] to be able to come through the neutral zone and attack on entries with Bert then going to the net and allowing those guys to do work off the puck, those are elements that have made any line Auston's played on do well."

The Leafs have outscored the opposition 12-6 in 5-on-5 play with Matthews and Domi together in this stretch. 

"The Auston, Bert and Doms line has been unbelievable for us over this past couple weeks," Marner noted. "It's been great to see that."

"It hasn't had a dip yet," noted Keefe. "That's what you're looking for because sometimes you try different things and you get a little bit of a bump and then over time it's not overly sustainable, but this one has looked really good. We know Auston with Mitch works at any time and we can go to that, but this is a good look for us."


Keefe is giving the Matthews line some easier match-ups and turning to Tavares more often when it comes to battling top lines. 

"Mitch's presence on that line enhances my ability to do that," said Keefe. "It frees Auston up a little bit more for his line."

Tavares took on Connor McDavid when the Edmonton Oilers visited Toronto on March 23. This week, the 33-year-old held his own against Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov and Florida's Aleksander Barkov

Marner is a Selke Trophy nominee, who often tackles the toughest match-ups. McMann's emergence in that role, though, certainly stands out. 

"Bob has a lot of skill," Marner said. "He's got a ton of speed on him so, for me, it's trying utilize his speed as much as possible and try and keep him in stride and find him in ways that work for him, and that’s just getting the puck in his hands with a full head of steam."

Marner, meanwhile, will be looking to hit the ground running after a long layoff. He leads all Leafs forwards in average ice time this season. 

"Regardless of how many skates or workouts you do it's always tough to get back into game speed," he said, "especially the game speed at the level we’re at right now. So, just try to get acquainted with it as quick as possible and make sure the first couple shifts, you know, you're trying to keep them short and quick." 

With the Leafs scaling back practice time of late, Marner only got into two full workouts in the lead up to Saturday's game. 

"Obviously you want to get out there and practice with the guys because that's when you really get the heart rate going and kind of the battle stuff going," he said. "But we got a lot of development [staff] around here that is a great group so they keep you up to pace."


ContentId(1.2099964): Getting up to game speed will be Marner's biggest challenge in return


Nylander is up to 95 points, which is the most ever in a single season by a Swedish-born Leaf. Mats Sundin previously held that distinction with 94 points in the 1996-97 season. 

"That's really cool," said Nylander, whose dad Michael Nylander played 15 years in the NHL. "Sundin is an incredible legend ... Incredible guy. I remember being a kid and the summer skates that my dad would go to, he would bring us and Mats would be there and he's just a great guy."

Nylander also has 40 goals, which is second on the team. But now he'll be deployed in a third-line role.  

"Sheldon talked to me the past couple days about what he was thinking," Nylander said. "I said, 'Let's get trying it so we're ready for playoffs.'" 

"Obviously when you're doing something like this you have an eye towards what maybe it'll look like in the playoffs," Keefe said. "In playoffs you know you have to be able to rely on more than one line. You want to be able to just roll your group and not have to overthink it and this is a step towards looking that way."

Nylander liked the chemistry with countryman Holmberg in practice. 

"He's just an incredibly smart player with the puck and putting himself in good positions without the puck and to get the puck back," Nylander noted. "I mean, those are small things that people might not notice, and obviously he's very talented too."

Nylander is third among Leafs forwards in even strength ice time per game. 

"In theory you've got the guys spread out over three lines and it looks really great," Keefe said. "You get into the game and you get TV timeouts and faceoffs and special teams and then you got three different rotations before you can get one of your top people out on the ice and that can slow them down, and it slows the pace of your offence down so that's a challenge. That's why you don’t see it happen very often in the league, because it is tough ... There's stoppages and you got to manage that when you got top people that are used to playing top minutes and you got them spread out. It's on me to manage that." 

Keefe acknowledges there will be changes the rest of the way, including in-game alterations. 

"We're always going to be a fluid group," said Keefe. "It's just the way that our group is, even the way our lines are here now."


ContentId(1.2099943): Means a lot for Nylander to pass Sundin for highest-scoring season by Swedish Leaf


Asked about Marner's return, Nylander's immediate reaction was quite telling. 

"Nice to get our power play unit together," he said with a smile. "So, that's fun."

Toronto went just 4-for-39 with Marner sidelined over the last 12 games, which ranks 31st overall in that period. 

"He creates a lot of opportunities and opens up plays and seams," said Nylander. "He's scoring goals too, so it makes another threat for the PK to worry about."

Marner leads the Leafs in primary assists on the power play with 13. 

"For me, it’s just making sure when I get in there not trying to complicate things," Marner said. "Be useful, helpful in holes, and trying to find ways to get the puck in my hands and contribute."

Defenceman Morgan Rielly, the quarterback on the unit, just returned from a four-game absence, so there's been lots of moving parts on the power play. Now, finally, the five stalwarts are all working together again.

At Friday's practice, the top unit ran 5-on-0 reps before practice under the guidance of assistant coach Guy Boucher as Keefe watched from the glass. Then they did live reps against the penalty kill at the main practice.   

"We can't get away from script," said Marner. "We have a lot of skilled players out there, but sometimes we just got to keep it simple, get pucks towards the net, get pucks laying around that crease, or even just shots from all sorts of angles with guys around the net."


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Tavares played his 1,100th career game last Saturday in Buffalo. Although he wasn't aware of the milestone until right before the game. 

"I knew I was getting close, but I don't look at the stat pack every game," he said. "Some guys do."

It was defenceman Jake McCabe asked Tavares how close he was to a round number. 

"I don't know if he had a hunch," Tavares said with a smile. "I said, 'I gotta be right there. I don't know.' And then he went and looked and said, 'Yeah, 1,100th tonight.' It was shortly after we got to the rink at night."

Tavares made it a memorable milestone. He scored the game-winning goal against the Sabres and is up to 59 points in 73 games this season. He's been a consistent contributor in part because of his work ethic. Even after projected scratches Noah Gregor and Nick Robertson left the ice, Tavares continued to put in work on Friday. He was the last player on the ice. 

"We haven't had much practice time lately so just trying to maximize that," he said. 

Friday was Toronto's first full practice since last Friday. The team doesn't have another practice planned until next Friday. 

Tavares worked with skating consultant Paul Matheson and Patrick O'Sullivan from the player development department. 

Tavares spends time with Matheson on most practice days. 

"You try and hit on a couple things to reinforce some habits," he said. 

With O'Sullivan, he was working on getting shots off in and around the net. 

"Time and space gets tighter and tighter, especially in the middle of the ice, and just trying to be good on getting opportunities to get looks on net and getting pucks off," he said. "And how to create a little more time and space, especially in tight areas or in the middle of the ice."


Ilya Samsonov was voted the team's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy nominee by the Toronto chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. 

"I didn't know about this," the 27-year-old goalie said. "I don't know what's going. It's good. Probably good."

A reporter explained that the Masterton Trophy is awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. There's one nominee from all 32 teams. 

"It's not too good being this nomination," Samsonov said with a smile. "Yeah, alright, we have what we have. I'm focused in the future right now, future for this team. I don't think a lot about in the past."

It's been a remarkable turnaround for Samsonov, who cleared waivers on Jan. 1 after starting the season with an .862 save percentage in 15 games. A heart-to-heart talk with his dad helped Samsonov rediscover his love for the game. He's 16-4-1 with a .914 save percentage since being recalled.

"So much of his season has been about staying in the moment and focusing on what’s in front of him and that's it," said Keefe. "That's important for anybody, but particularly for him and this season, the way it started to where he's at now, that's been the biggest area of improvement for him. Obviously, it's great to see he remains that way." 

The spotlight is bright in Toronto and it can be a lot to handle, especially for goalies. 

"I know I've said it a lot of times, you guys are not kind to some people sometimes," Marner said. "Stuff gets said about a lot people during tough stretches or tough moments and obviously that doesn't define one person. What Ilya's done, coming back from the start of the season and just really taking us back into a great position, being the backbone of this team, it's been phenomenal and amazing to see."

Samsonov is reluctant to talk about what he went through. 

"I didn't change a lot," he insisted. "Just continue to work, continue believe in myself and, you know, it's hard to say. I know this, everybody support me in this locker room, this most important for me."

"The greatest thing about it all is his attitude hasn't changed in the locker room or off the ice," said Marner. "He's still the same human being just a joy to be around, a lot of fun, and he's done that every single day regardless of what's gone this season. So, that's the thing that's special about him." 

Samsonov appears to be on track to start Game 1 of the playoffs. But first he'll start on Saturday in Montreal. 

"It's unbelievable," he said. "Huge. Never better game in Canada hockey than Toronto-Montreal on Saturday. Full stadium. Like, fans is so loud. It's a lot of Toronto fans come to Montreal and get some support for us. It's huge. I like to play this games."

Samsonov stopped 29 of 31 shots to earn a win in Montreal on March 9. 


ContentId(1.2099946): Honoured for perseverance, Samsonov prefers to keep looking forward


Like Samsonov, veteran winger Ryan Reaves bounced back big time this season 

"Confidence is a real thing," the 37-year-old said. "That's the first time I've probably gone through something like that in my career where I just felt like nothing was going right and I just felt like I had no confidence."

Reaves, who signed a three-year deal in the summer, was a team-worst minus-11 before the calendar flipped to 2024. He averaged seven minutes and 20 seconds of ice time through his first 21 games. 

Reaves missed time with a knee injury and wasn't inserted into the lineup even after he declared himself healthy. The Winnipeg native didn't play between Dec. 14 and Jan. 27. 

"Coming off the break, it felt like my game started getting a little bit better and then I just kept building on it ever since," Reaves said. "I think that month, month and a half that I was out, I used that as a mini training camp. I worked hard. I worked on everything that I could. I was doing two or three a day sometimes, just trying to get confidence back."

Reaves seems to be skating quicker and landing hits more frequently on the forecheck. On his first shift on Wednesday, he knocked over Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman

"Far and away the most physical he's been in terms of just being able to get there on time," Keefe observed. "Really set a tone in the game. And then not just that, but he also got pucks back. He's getting to the net front. That line's shooting pucks. That line was a real highlight for us in that first period and Revo was leading the charge. So, that's terrific to see."

In the third period, Reaves dropped the gloves after being challenged by Tanner Jeannot and scored a takedown much to the delight of the Toronto bench and capacity crowd. 

"When he brings that physicality, when he makes those hits and you can hear the crowd get going, it obviously gets a lot of energy into the atmosphere on the bench," Matthews said. "You can feel that throughout the team and it's obvious he brings a big positive momentum shift for us."

Reaves has appeared in at least one playoff game in each of the last 12 seasons dating back to 2012. 


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Defenceman Joel Edmundson took part in his first practice since sustaining an undisclosed injury on March 24. 


Lines at Friday's practice: 

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

Rielly - Lyubushkin 
Benoit - McCabe 
Giordano - Brodie 
Edmundson - Timmins 


Power play units at Friday's practice: 

Rielly, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares 

Giordano, McCabe, Bertuzzi, McMann, Domi