Leafs determined to be more consistent down the stretch
The Maple Leafs (optional) and New York Islanders skated at Scotiabank Arena on Monday.
After taking part in his first All-Star Game on Saturday, Morgan Rielly is eager to get back to the regular-season grind.
"That's the best way to do it," the Leafs defenceman said. "Just get right back into things starting here tonight and then again in a couple days."
Rielly and fellow all-star participants Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander skipped Sunday's practice to catch their breath following a busy few days. Of that group, only Rielly hit the ice for Monday's optional skate.
"He wanted to get some extra touches in," said coach Sheldon Keefe before cracking a smile. "He actually commented that he didn't get a whole lot of touches in the [All-Star] games because the forwards were doing the touches, and he had the defensive responsibilities. The other guys, clearly they need some time to kind of get back to feeling like themselves again, but getting back into real game action will help with that."
Matthews was named MVP after leading his team to an All-Star Game title in the 3-on-3 event on Saturday. Nylander won the 1-on-1 breakaway challenge at the skills competition on Friday. Marner appreciated the chance to play in the mid-season showcase in front of friends and family in his hometown.
"There's great momentum," Keefe said. "Such a prestigious event that they all had fun in and had success with to blend right into playing a game here right in the same building."
The Leafs hoped to challenge for the Atlantic Division title this season but start the stretch drive in a wild-card spot. Consistency proved elusive during an up-and-down first half of the year.
"You can just kind of tell that the mindset of the guys is that we expect to be better here after we come back from this break and play some good hockey down the stretch," said Rielly. "When that's the consensus type of feeling it puts us in a good position to go out and play well."
Nineteen of Toronto's remaining 35 games will be against teams currently holding a playoff spot. The average points percentage of Toronto's remaining opponents is .576, which gives them the fifth most difficult schedule, per the website tankathon.com.
"We looked at our schedule," said third-line centre Max Domi. "We're going to be playing a lot of good teams and got to be ready to go."
"It's just time," said Rielly. "After the break each year you can kind of tell that the pace picks up. It's a chance for our team to prove to each other that we're ready to make a little push here in the back half of the season."
Keefe has called for the players to adopt a playoff-type mindset coming out of the break.
"This is when it's fun," Domi said. "This is when you start to separate, and you see certain things with better teams. The better teams start to come into their own and the weaker teams start to fall off. This is what we play for, right, to be in a situation right now to get in a dogfight and keep chipping away."
The Islanders are four points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the third and final automatic playoff spot out of the Metropolitan Division and six points back of Toronto and the Detroit Red Wings, who occupy the wild-card spots.
"There's no time to be rusty," said veteran winger Matt Martin. "We got to get going right away. We need to win games. We were in this position last year as well and had a strong last, whatever, 30-plus games and found a way to get in so we know we're capable of it. We got to approach every game like it's a playoff game."
The Islanders are 1-2-1 since Patrick Roy took over behind the bench. The new coach points out those games included duels with Dallas, Vegas and Florida, who were all in the conference finals last season.
"Pretty challenging games, but I'm pleased with what I've seen," Roy said. "Limiting the time in our zone, in those four games we're No. 1 in the NHL. I feel like this is a good sign. This is progression. This is something we feel we can build on. There are other things that need to be better [at]. We need to cut scoring chances against, and the guys are aware of that."
The Islanders focused on tracking back into the defensive zone during Sunday's practice.
"As a coach, he's shown he's bringing a lot of intensity," said Domi, who met Roy when he played for the Canadiens. "That's a good team over there that has a little bit of extra fire with a new coach. We'll have to be ready to match that because they're going to be going for sure."
What's the biggest change Roy has made?
"They seem to be playing with more aggression, more pressure on the puck defensively," Keefe observed.
"We talk a little more about offence," said Martin. "He's really preached a lot about our offensive game, how we can score more, be more active and have a little more fun in that respect, but he still wants us to play the right way defensively."
The Islanders are averaging 34.8 shots per game under Roy, which is third overall. Under Lane Lambert, they averaged 29.5 shots per game, which was 23rd overall.
But more than any of the system shift, Roy's personality has made a difference.
"The guys have kind of got a little jolt from the energy and the passion he brings each day," said defenceman Noah Dobson.
With four Stanley Cup rings on his resume, there's instant credibility.
"He's exactly, in a lot of ways, how he played," Martin highlighted. "Just the energy and the passion for it. I remember watching him growing up ... When things weren't going well you'd see him go a little bit off the rails and crazy and then he could also have a lot of fun and just loved to win. For him, it's all about winning and all about the team and we've enjoyed that messaging so far."
The break allowed Roy to find a place to live in New York, but he was concerned about losing momentum behind the changes with the Islanders. The Hall-of-Fame goalie was happy with Sunday's practice and liked the high-energy skate on Monday morning.
"I love the game," the 58-year-old said. "I'm a very passionate person about hockey. The game was so good to me and having a chance to give back, I could not ask for a better situation."
Dobson has notched seven assists in two games against Toronto this season, including a career-high four assists when the teams last met on Jan. 11 at UBS Arena.
"It's been actually great just to see him develop into the d-man that everyone knew and thought he was going to be," said Marner after that 4-3 Islanders win. "Because, if I recall correctly, there were a lot of doubters on him. He's turned into a hell of a player. He makes a lot of great plays especially when his eyes are up. He's very good at getting pucks through and making plays."
Was Dobson, a first-round pick in 2018, driven by the doubters?
"I'm my biggest critic, especially after last year," the 24-year-old said. "I knew there was areas where I needed to take strides and continue to grow so that was motivation for me."
Dobson leads the Islanders with 52 points in 49 games. He's already surpassed his career high of 51 points set over 80 games in the 2021-22 season. He had 49 points in 78 games last season.
"Looking in the mirror at the end of last year, [I tried] finding areas where I needed to be better and just really tried to hone in on those things," Dobson said.
Dobson was determined to be a better all-around player. He wanted to be trusted in all situations and against top lines. Dobson is making good on those goals. He's tied for seventh overall in the NHL with a plus-21 rating. His previous high in that category was plus-four last season.
"I feel like the offence always just comes from making solid plays defensively, being good on the break outs and just going from there," the Prince Edward Island native said.
Dobson has recorded 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in his last four games against the Leafs since the start of the 2022-23 season, leading all NHL blueliners against Toronto in that span.
Dobson averages 25 minutes and 59 seconds of ice time per game, which is tied with Los Angeles King Drew Doughty for first in the NHL.
"They're key guys on our team," said Roy. "They're vets. They're important leaders on our team so if they play tonight we're very excited about it."
Pelech and Pulock skated on a regular pairing on Monday morning and did not stay out late with the projected scratches.
Pulock missed the last 24 games after suffering a lower-body injury on Dec. 7.
Pelech missed the final game before the break after taking a head hit from Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher on Jan. 25.
Pierre Engvall will play in Toronto for the first time since the Leafs traded him last February.
"I had a good time in Toronto," the speedy winger said. "I was drafted here and played here for many years, so it feels good to be back and hopefully I have a good game today. It's gonna be fun."
A seventh-round pick in 2014, Engvall played 226 games with the Leafs over four seasons.
"The fan base was really good here," Engvall said. "I enjoyed playing here and had a good time."
"It's never easy to come back," said Martin, who's also a former Leaf. "He's never sat in this locker room. He's never been on that side of the ice for warm-up. It takes a little bit of time to get used to but once the puck drops it's just a game again. Hopefully he has a strong game."
Leafs centre David Kampf will miss all three games this week.
"There's something there they found on the MRI that will require some time to heal," said Keefe. "Nothing significant at this point. Not going to be available this week and then we'll move into day-to-day category from there if all goes well."
Projected Leafs lineup:
Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
Robertson - Domi - Gregor
McMann - Holmberg - Reaves
Rielly - Brodie
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Liljegren
BOLD = Participated in morning skate
Lines at Islanders skate:
Lee - Horvat - Barzal
Engvall - Nelson - Palmieri
Holmstrom - Pageau - Wahlstrom
Martin - MacLean - Clutterbuck
Romanov - Dobson
Reilly - Mayfield
Pelech - Pulock
Bolduc - Aho