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Knies takes after Matthews ahead of first game back home in Arizona

Auston Matthews Matthew Knies Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews Matthew Knies - Getty Images

Auston Matthews lights up when asked about fellow Arizona native Matthew Knies playing his first NHL game back home. 

"He's kind of like that next wave of guys coming up," Matthews said. "I still forget that I'm like five, six years older than Kniesy. It's kinda funny. I grew up playing with his older brother. I was around Matthew a lot growing up so it's really cool to be on the same team and playing together, knowing where our roots go back. It's going to be really cool to go play at home."

Knies signed with the Leafs out of the University of Minnesota late last season. This is his first full season in the NHL and he's playing a prominent role as the top line left winger beside Matthews and Mitch Marner. 

"I'm pretty fired up just to see my fam and be around home," said Knies, 21. "It's a lot of fun. And then to play in that barn, I only played in a college game there, but now it's going to be pretty exciting to play an NHL game there."   

Tickets will be hard to come by at Mullet Arena, capacity 4,600, as the Leafs make their one trip to Tempe this season. How many family and friends will Knies have in the house on Wednesday? 

"About 50 or 60, which is probably a section at that arena," he said with a big smile. "I'm just super pumped for it."

Matthews picked up an assist in his first Arizona homecoming game back on Dec. 23, 2016 when the Leafs beat the Coyotes 3-1 in Glendale, Ariz. 

"I love going back home and love playing in front of friends and family," said Matthews, who is getting set for his seventh game in Arizona. "It will be a really cool experience for him to do that for the first time. Just gotta take it all in and have fun and compete. Still got a job to do." 

Toronto's top line is getting the job done lately for the Leafs. Matthews, of course, is scoring seemingly at will. A notable development of late, though, has been the play of Knies, who seems to have benefitted from the bye week and All-Star break. 

"I have seen some growth in his game for sure," observed head coach Sheldon Keefe. "Coming out of the break, it looks like he has a little more energy to him, too, which is important."

Matthews believes the 6-foot-3, 217-pound rookie will be able to handle the grind in his first professional season.  

"He was always bigger than his brother," Matthews recalled. "I always remember that. Him and his brother were just so jacked, just so strong. They had like eight packs when they were eight years old. Their dad is huge too so you know where they get it from. They're great people, both him and his brother. His family's awesome. I know for them it's going to be really special and exciting to watch their son play at home. I'm really happy for them." 

Matthews is the face of Arizona hockey and Knies is now happy to play his own role in inspiring the next generation. 

"I'm really proud to be from Arizona," he said. "I just love representing it."

ContentId(1.2078615): Rise of Knies makes this homecoming more meaningful for Matthews


Knies opened the scoring during Toronto's 4-2 win on Monday in St. Louis by making a smooth move through veteran defenceman Colton Parayko

"Nasty," said winger William Nylander. "Nice little stick handle and then upstairs."

"Beautiful play," agreed Matthews, who won a puck battle before feeding Knies. "He's got great skill and he just continues to get better and better."   

Knies now has six points in the last six games. 

Keefe points out that Knies is making timely plays, including setting up Matthews to open the scoring in Saturday's win against the Anaheim Ducks

"He carries the puck deep and creates a turnover after that before making a play to the middle of the ice where Auston finishes it," Keefe said. "That is taking charge in the first period of the Anaheim game. He takes charge of the second period [on Monday] to get us going. That is what you are looking for."

Prior to this hot streak, Knies had just three assists in a 16-game stretch. What's working now? 

"I'm playing hard," Knies said. "I'm skating, putting pressure on them, making the D turn, and just creating havoc in front and creating opportunities for my linemates."

ContentId(1.2078620): 'Nasty' goal latest sign that Leafs rookie Knies is reaching 'next level'


It helps when Matthews and Marner are those linemates. Matthews scored yet again on Monday to reach 49 goals in just 53 games this season. 

"It's unreal to see," Knies said. "He's been a huge leader and big influence on our whole team. I'm really happy for him."

We haven't seen this goal-scoring pace in the NHL since Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny both netted 76 in the 1992-93 season. It's surprising but also not surprising at the same time for teammates who notice Matthews' incredible work ethic.  

"You see after practice, he probably stays all the time," said goalie Ilya Samsonov. "He scores almost 50 goals, yeah, but he's working every day for his shot or something."

Matthews seems laser focused at the moment and a day off at home will not change that. 

"It's always nice to have that day and just be able to spend time with family and friends," he said. "Hopefully the weather will be nice to get some sun and kind of enjoy and relax and have that day, but we know we got to be prepared come Wednesday. The road trip is just starting so we got to make sure we stay focused and committed to what we're trying to accomplish here."

ContentId(1.2078752): Leafs Ice Chips: A well-deserved day off in the desert


It may not be a coincidence that this Leafs winning streak coincides with the suspension of Morgan Rielly

"We've answered the bell," said Nylander. "Mo kinda lit the fire in the team. We're battling for Mo."

Toronto's top defenceman will serve the fifth and final game of his ban on Wednesday. Rielly was assessed supplemental discipline for cross-checking Ridly Greig in the head after the Ottawa Senators rookie took a slap shot into Toronto's empty net from close range to seal a win on Feb. 10. 

"He defended the respect of our team and we're playing really hard now," said Knies. "We're playing really good hockey and it's given us a jump."

The NHLPA, on behalf of Rielly, appealed the length of the suspension to commissioner Gary Bettman, but he affirmed the decision in a ruling on Tuesday.

The Leafs have outscored the opposition 21-8 during this four-game surge. 

"Guys have remained calm and gone out and played," Keefe said ahead of Monday's game. "Guys who we have needed to step up and play in different roles have done so and done very well. Obviously, our top players have stepped up. Auston has been on a tear ... Guys have stepped up. We are going to need that to continue."

The Leafs have a history of succeeding in the absence of key players. When Matthews missed a game due to illness earlier this season, Toronto beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 7-0. 

"I'm not sure [it's] as much of a rallying point as much as knowing [we're] missing a very key piece," Matthews said. "Knowing we have to step up collectively and do a job ... It's great to have these guys come in and play important minutes. It gives them more confidence and gives us confidence as a team."

ContentId(1.2078629): 'Battling for Mo': After Rielly lit a fire, Leafs have 'answered the bell'


With Rielly suspended, Mark Giordano away from the team following the death of his father, and William Lagesson dealing with an upper-body injury, Toronto's defensive depth is being tested. 

Marshall Rifai stepped in and made his NHL debut on Monday. He logged 11 minutes and 33 seconds beside Max Lajoie on the third pair. 

"He was steady and very solid," said Keefe. "Nothing stands out in terms of a mistake. You noticed him. He moves around the rink well. He is competitive. He made good decisions with the puck. I thought he did a really good job for us."


Bobby McMann certainly stepped up in the last week. The left winger scored six goals in the last four games. 

"He's been flying," said Nylander. "Absolutely flying. Scoring goals almost like Auston (smile). Yeah, he's been buzzing."

"He has been generating a lot of momentum," said Keefe. "Not just because of the way he has been scoring but the way he is skating and the confidence he is playing with. I thought he used his strength and speed on the puck a lot."

With the Leafs protecting a one-goal lead late in Monday's game, Keefe sent out McMann with Matthews and Marner. The undrafted 27-year-old responded by winning a battle with Torey Krug and scoring the insurance marker into an empty net to seal the victory. 

What did McMann do to earn the 5-on-6 shift? 

"I thought he was having a good game," Keefe said. "He scored into the empty net for us the last time I used him in that situation [last Tuesday against the Blues]. I just thought, given the game he [was having] and the way he has been playing, he deserved another opportunity to get back out there."

McMann logged nearly 12 minutes while playing primarily on a line with John Tavares and Nick Robertson. 

Noah Gregor, who has gone 24 games without a goal, was a healthy scratch on Monday for the first time with the Leafs. 


Tyler Bertuzzi remained on the top power-play unit on Monday even though Tavares returned from a one-game injury absence. 

"Well, it scored four goals last game," Keefe explained. "It was not just that but Bert got one, too. I think there is a chance to capitalize on some extra momentum."

Bertuzzi snapped a 19-game drought with a power-play goal against the Ducks on Saturday.  

"It is a similar type of mindset with McMann and the way he has been going to keep him up on the third line and keep him on the power play as well," Keefe continued. "We are trying to capitalize on some of that momentum with those guys."

Toronto's top power play unit struck again on Monday with Marner setting up Matthews in the third period. 


The Leafs penalty-kill unit also got on the board in St. Louis. After Pavel Buchnevich put a pass into the feet of Krug high in the zone, Nylander forced a turnover before taking off on a 2-on-0 rush alongside fellow Swede Pontus Holmberg

"I saw Holmberg driving back side so I decided to shoot it," Nylander said with a smile. "No, I saw the goalie cheating so I just put it in short side."

Blues goalie Joel Hofer seemed convinced that Nylander planned to slide the puck over to Holmberg, who is goalless in 13 games. 

"A very underrated effort by Pontus Holmberg to sprint up the ice," Keefe highlighted. "He doesn't get the pass, but he forces the goaltender to get a lot deeper on the play. Credit to Willy for recognizing where the goalie is and finding the open space."

Nylander is known for his finishing ability. He's on pace for 44 goals this season, which would beat last year's career high of 40. But Nylander, prior to this season, hasn't been known for penalty killing. In fact, Samsonov points out that Nylander isn't exactly adept at shot blocking. 

"Sometimes he tips it for me," the goalie said with a grin. "He said it's for me, make game more interesting, yeah, not too much relax."

Nylander ranks 14th among Leafs forwards in shots blocked per 60 minutes, but the 27-year-old winger is consistently earning shorthanded shifts.

"He's really smart guy," Samsonov eventually acknowledged. "He's doing good job."  

Nylander is averaging 50 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game this season. That number is up to one minute and 40 seconds per game since Calle Jarnkrok got hurt in late January. 

"With the more reps that he gets, he gets more comfortable with it," Keefe noted. "The most important thing with Willy, like a lot of top players, their strength on the penalty kill is never going to be when the other team is in full possession snapping it around in-zone. Their strength is going to be on loose pucks and plays where they can sense the opposition is in a little bit of trouble, where they can anticipate and jump. That is what he did [Monday] on a number of occasions — and not just on the goal he scored."

Nylander has three shorthanded goals, which is tied for fifth most in the league. 

"He's really good at anticipating the puck, anticipating plays, breaking up plays, breaking up passes and just pickpocketing guys," said Matthews. "It's been a lot of fun watching him do his thing on the penalty kill. He just continues to get better and better. Obviously he's so good offensively that you're going to get those chances."

Nylander leads the Leafs with 59 takeaways this season. He learned a lot from watching how Marner made opposing power plays uncomfortable over the years. 

"It's been a lot of years watching him PK," Nylander said. "The way he reads the play and being in the right positions and stuff, shutting down their plays, and taking away time and space from them."

ContentId(1.2078632): 'Pickpocketing' Nylander follows in Marner's footsteps on penalty kill


Samsonov has now won seven of his last eight starts. 

"It's pretty good," he said when asked about the state of his game. "Yeah, I feel good." 

It's been a dramatic resurgence for the 26-year-old, who cleared waivers on Jan. 1. 

"It is a great story for sure," Keefe said. "I don't look at it as that big of a thing just because I have always believed in the goalie. He played really well for us last season. It was more a story of how far gone it was in terms of looking like himself. The fact that he is able to bring it back, look like this, and do well is less of a surprise to me. It is a credit to how he handled himself during that period of time and how the organization supported him."

Keefe credits goalie coach Curtis Sanford and general manager Brad Treliving for crafting a plan to get Samsonov back on track. 

Samsonov started the season with an .863 save percentage in his first 16 games. His save percentage is .921 in the last eight games. 

"Incredible for him to battle through that and play the way he's playing," Nylander said. "He's been incredible for us. Yeah, there's no looking back." 


Leafs lines during Monday's game against the St. Louis Blues


Knies - Matthews - Marner 

Bertuzzi - Domi - Nylander 

McMann - Tavares - Robertson 

Holmberg - Kampf - Reaves


Brodie - Liljegren 

Benoit - McCabe 

Rifai - Lajoie