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Outdoor practice allows Leafs to 'feel the love' and reset after ugly loss

Michael Bunting Toronto Maple Leafs Michael Bunting - The Canadian Press

The Toronto Maple Leafs held their annual outdoor practice at Nathan Phillips Square on Sunday. Mark Masters has more.

Hours after being humbled on home ice by the last place Columbus Blue Jackets, the Leafs were all smiles during the team's annual outdoor practice. 

"A good way to start to turn the page from last night and for us to connect with our fan base and community," said captain John Tavares. "This one is always a lot of fun."

The team made the trip to City Hall via the subway, which caught commuters off guard on a sleepy Sunday morning. 

"That's the best part," said winger Mitch Marner. "Walking through the mall too, a lot of people aren't expecting it. It's kind of cool."

"It's a good change of pace for us in the middle of a long season," said defenceman Morgan Rielly

Players posed for pictures and signed autographs as they walked to the ice in full equipment. 

The 'practice' itself was actually a 3-on-3 tournament. The players were separated into three groups: Team Europe, Team North America and Team Ontario. 

"If you're going to come in after a loss like last night this is as good a way to do it," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "Beautiful day. Unbelievable turnout. Second time for me doing this event and you've kind of forgotten just how cool it is. A great opportunity for us to interact with the fans as well, but just to see and feel the love is awesome."

Fans cheered every close call and goal during a series of four-minute games, which culminated with Ontario beating Europe in the final. 

"We wish we had more time that we could spend and do autographs for everybody," said Rielly, who is the longest-serving Leaf. "Turnout is huge and we're very thankful to our fans for all the support. This is a very fun day for us. 


Marner wore sunglasses throughout the practice. 

"Pretty sunny out here," he said with a grin. 

"Well, it's right up his style," noted Tavares, who wore eye black on his cheeks. "It was bright out there today. The glare was pretty [strong] so he made the right play, which is not surprising."

Marner picked up two primary assists in Saturday's loss while logging a career high 28:05 of ice time. How'd the legs feel on Sunday? 

"They still feel good, man," the 25-year-old assured. "You want to be able to play big minutes and help your team win. Obviously, it wasn't enough, but you feel good. You feel excited to be out here."

Marner, as always, was the showman. He scored a goal and did the Griddy dance much to the delight of fans. 

"I grew up here," the Markham, Ont. native said. "Now playing here I've been loved by so many so for me it's about trying to give back as much as you can and try to make a difference in the world."

Marner is averaging 21:18 of ice time per game this season, which is seventh among NHL forwards. 


Tavares was asked if he could envision being back downtown for a parade in a few months. 

"Absolutely," the 32-year-old responded without hesitation. "You think about that all the time. Obviously a lot of work ahead. One day at a time ... but certainly that's what we're working towards. No doubt, from time to time, those thoughts come across your mind."

"We think about that a lot," Keefe concurred. 

The coach was also quick to point out that Leafs fans have been pleasantly patient while awaiting a breakthrough. 

"The thing that stands out is how passionate people are and how respectful and appreciative people are and positive about our team," the Brampton, Ont. native said. "Everyone's excited. I get that everywhere I go. I've never had a negative interaction with anyone outside of work and being about the city. I'm in arenas a lot with my own kids and you feel the love. And, for me, individually, when I come to work every day I know that I'm not coming to work just for myself. I'm a representative of Leafs Nation and I got a great job to do, great responsibility. I don't take it lightly for a second."


The mood was very different immediately following Saturday's setback. The Leafs blew a 2-0 lead during a dreadful second period. 

"Just got outworked, outplayed," Keefe said. 

How do you explain it? 

"I can't," the coach admitted. "You guys talked to the players. I'm sure you asked them the same questions. I can't do the work for them."

Toronto got outshot 21-10 in Saturday's middle stanza. 

"We just stopped playing the way we did [at] the beginning," said winger William Nylander. "I don't think we do anything intentional, but we just got to fix that problem with our game. We just got to keep rolling and not take the foot off the gas."

The Leafs have struggled against inferior opposition in recent years. Saturday's defeat against the 32nd-place Jackets was only the latest example. Toronto has also lost twice to the 29th-place Arizona Coyotes and 26th-place Montreal Canadiens this season and dropped games to the 30th-place Anaheim Ducks and 28th-place San Jose Sharks. 

"It's been an area of focus, obviously," said Rielly, who is the longest-serving Leaf. "We've talked about it in the past, I mean, going back a while now. Truthfully, I thought we were really good in the first and then it's just a small lapse that ends up costing you."

The search for answers will continue in the coming week as the Leafs face the 31st-place Chicago Blackhawks twice and also host the Canadiens. 

"We definitely have to look at this one and understand the way we have to be for 60 minutes," said Tavares, "and when a couple shifts, momentum goes the other way, how we have to respond and grab it back." 


After a strong effort in Friday's win, Toronto's third line – David Kampf between Pierre Engvall and Joey Anderson – faltered on Saturday. That group was on the ice for the first Jackets goal by Boone Jenner and failed to clear the puck despite repeated chances. Engvall and Anderson didn't play another shift in the second period. 

"It is just habits slipping," Keefe said. "They have to be competitive. They have to be great defensively. They have to be physical. That is what that line has to do. When all of that slips, it is not acceptable. It is really as simple as that."


After missing the net on a partial break in the second period, Nylander got hit by Nick Blankenburg behind the net. The usually mild-mannered Nylander responded by taking a swing at the Jackets defenceman. 

"I shot the puck and then a couple seconds later he tried to hit me," Nylander said. "So, I just felt pissed off." 

At Blankenburg or the missed chance? 

"At him," the 26-year-old Swede said. "Or probably both at the same time. But, I mean, I didn't think he needed to hit me there."

Nylander's angry outburst looked dangerous in real time and the referees initially called a major before reducing it to a roughing minor on review. 

"When is the last time you saw Willy Nylander retaliate or something like that," Keefe said. "I kind of like it, to be honest. If they want to take runs at him every now and again, he is going to make the other team aware of it."


Jospeh Woll allowed four goals on 40 shots in his first career home start in the NHL. 

"It was a pretty awesome atmosphere to play in," the 24-year-old said. "It's pretty special to play in front of your home crowd. Unfortunate we didn't get the win for them, but definitely an experience I'll remember."

It was Woll's fifth career NHL game and first since Dec. 5, 2021. 

"I felt good," he said. "A lot better than last year coming in and playing, for sure. A lot more comfortable. Yeah, I thought I trusted myself a lot more playing and settled in."

The Leafs have another back-to-back set next weekend so Woll could get another chance soon. 

"He was fine," said Keefe. "We just gave up too much. Too many shots. Too many things in and around the crease. It makes it a lot harder on him than it should've been."

Woll and Ilya Samsonov did not take part in Sunday's outdoor practice. 


Teams at Sunday's outdoor 3-on-3 tournament: 

Team Ontario: Michael Bunting, Mitch Marner, Wayne Simmonds, John Tavares, T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano and Conor Timmins. 

Team North America: Joey Anderson, Zach Aston-Reese, Alex Kerfoot, Alex Steeves, Jordie Benn, Justin Holl and Morgan Rielly.  

Team Europe: Pierre Engvall, Pontus Holmberg, Calle Jarnkrok, David Kampf, William Nylander, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin.