Keefe will help Leafs stars 'free their minds' with season on the line
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe held a Zoom call with reporters on Monday. Panthers coach Paul Maurice addressed the media at FLA Live Arena. Game 4 is set for Wednesday in Florida.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander have yet to score in Toronto's second-round series against Florida and Sheldon Keefe was asked what he can do to get his stars shining again.
"Give our guys the freedom to free their minds and just focus on the things that they can control," the coach said. "They have had a lot of scoring chances in this series that haven't fallen and haven't gone their way. They were dominant in many ways in Game 2. It was not as good in Game 3 and yet, particularly the Matthews and Marner line in the third period — especially the first 15 minutes or so — every single shift of theirs was spent in the offensive zone for the most part. They had some good looks, some good zone time and a lot of positive momentum for them and the team. Those are the things I want them to be focused on."
According to NHL Stats, this is the first time since Tavares joined the Leafs in 2018 that Toronto's core four forwards have all been held without a goal for three consecutive games.
Matthews, Marner and Tavares each fired two shots on net on Sunday while Nylander put one puck on target.
"Just like the rest of our team, right now the focus has got to be on doing what we can control and focus on the things that really, truly matter in terms of the process and details of the game," said Keefe. "The moment anybody gets bogged down with the fact they haven't scored or they start to think about things outside the little details and habits and the competitiveness and work ethic and all those things that give you a chance to succeed and put you in position to score, the moment you get distracted and lose focus of those things, now you're really working uphill."
Paul Maurice credits Sergei Bobrovsky, who has stopped 91 of 98 shots in the series, for keeping Toronto's top talent at bay. There's also, the coach acknowledged, some luck involved.
"We give up about five 2-on-1s in the first seven minutes of that game," Maurice said. "The second half of Game 2, there's lots there. It's just inside the post and outside the post is the difference with those good players."
The players themselves didn't have many answers when they spoke to the media following Sunday's 3-2 overtime loss.
"I feel like we've had some good chances and good stretches of play," said Matthews, who hit the post on his first shift. "Stuff's just not falling, but can't get discouraged."
"We have to find a way to capitalize a little more," said Tavares, who has yet to record a point in the series. "They're defending very tight in and around their net."
"They did a good job boxing out and blocking shots," said Marner. "We just got to make sure, as forwards, we do a better job of getting around the net."
Similar sentiments were expressed during previous playoff letdowns against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning.
"It has felt a lot more like what we have been through in the past," Keefe acknowledged. "That is why it has been challenging. It has been difficult to understand and yet it is our reality. It is where we are at."
It was only nine days ago that the Leafs celebrated the franchise's first playoff series win in 19 years. Toronto won three road games in overtime to oust the Lightning, who had been to three straight Stanley Cup finals. Toronto scored in the final minute of regulation in Game 3 and rallied from 4-1 down in the third period of Game 4.
"It was how resilient we were to just stay with it, even at times when we were on our heels and the opposition was really coming," Keefe recalled. "We didn't make the big mistake. At times, particularly when you look at Game 6, we didn't need a whole lot of offence to win. Our team found different ways to win in that series. We have found different ways to lose in this one."
Only four teams in the history of the National Hockey League have come back from a 3-0 hole to win a series.
"I do continue to have great belief in our group," Keefe stressed. "We still haven't played our best hockey, but we have played good hockey and have certainly been in these last two games. We are right there, one shot away and leading through a lot of the game. We are not that far off. We certainly have the ability to put it together. We won three games in a row in the Tampa series. There are a lot of things here, but we are obviously up against a tough opponent. We have a lot of belief in our team, but there is a good team on the other side as well that is going to make it hard. It is meant to be hard. Anything worth achieving is hard. We will do all that we can to have our group ready to get the win on Wednesday and bring it back to Toronto."
The Panthers have won six straight games, including three in overtime. They seem loose and confident after sneaking into the playoffs.
"Are you powerful enough to will a team down? I think sometimes that's actually more talent," said Maurice. "Our team is playing its ass off, as hard as it can. We don't have four more gears to get to. Drop the puck. Top speed. That's all we got. The results take care of themselves ... Play your ass off. See what happens."
Maurice says his players are running the dressing room right now. He's not making any motivational speeches before games.
"If you can't enjoy it then you need to leave and I know it for a fact," he said. "I'm not saying you're not nervous or you're not wound up or you're not at all jacked up, like, you are, but if you can't find a way to enjoy that then that's kind of sad. Like, why work your ass off your entire life to get to a place that you really don't enjoy the day that you worked your ass off to get to? It would make little sense."
Marner has just one power-play assist in the series.
"You have to give credit to Florida," said Keefe. "They have played him hard. Mitch is a great player. He has been a great player. He is working out there. He is trying."
"I don't think we can get frustrated," the 26-year-old winger said. "We just got to stick to our abilities. Once you get frustrated then things don't really go well for you at all so we're trying to maintain and do the right things on the ice."
Keefe pointed out that his team didn't get a power play chance in Game 3, which made it harder for the top forwards to generate offensive rhythm.
"It is a team game," Keefe said. "We need everybody to find a way to break through here."
"It sucks, obviously, but got to forget about it quickly," Marner said after the latest loss. "Be pissed off and now it's do or die."
Matthews was held off the scoresheet for the first time in the playoffs on Sunday. His line struggled to get set up in the offensive zone in the first two periods.
"Our forecheck was just a little bit discombobulated at times," the 2022 Hart Trophy winner said. "They're breaking out quick. There's stretches where we controlled play and had good O-zone [time] but probably not as much as we need or as much as we'd like."
Florida's forecheck has kept the Leafs under pressure for much of the series.
"They play aggressive," Matthews said. "Maybe we're just a little bit disconnected at times coming through our end and into the neutral zone and offensive zone."
Ilya Samsonov left Game 3 in the second period with an injury.
"Sammy is feeling better today so that is positive," said Keefe. "He is going to get some tests and an MRI done today to get a better idea of what is happening with him. He does have some time on his side today and tomorrow. We will use that time and get a better sense of where he is at."
Joseph Woll looked solid in relief stopping 18 of 21 shots.
"The first thing I was thinking about was, 'I hope Sammy's not hurt too bad,'" the 24-year-old said. "I hope the best for him. And then it's just focusing as well as I can and getting to the place I need to be mentally."
Woll has played 11 regular-season games in the NHL, including seven this season. He made his Stanley Cup playoff debut during a Game 1 blowout in the first round against the Lightning. That experience helped him be ready for Sunday's stress.
"Just understanding it's still a hockey game," he said. "My process doesn't change regardless of Stanley Cup finals or an exhibition game ... I just try to focus on the moment as much as I can and try not to think too much on the outcome. I settled in and did a good job of that mentally so that was good."
"He didn't look like the moment or situation was too big for him," said Keefe.
"He was excellent," agreed Tavares. "His potential is sky high so I'm not surprised."
Matt Murray, who suffered a concussion on April 2, has been cleared to play and is ready to dress if needed.
The Panthers will hold a practice at 11 a.m. on Tuesday at FLA Live Arena.
The Leafs will also hold a practice on Tuesday.