With O'Reilly ready to return, Leafs lineup feels complete
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday before flying to Boston for Thursday’s game against the Bruins.
Ryan O'Reilly can't recall who deserves credit for dubbing him "The Factor" during his days with the Colorado Avalanche.
"It was either Paul Stastny or John-Michael Liles," the 32-year-old centre said. "That was when 'The O'Reilly Factor' TV show was out there so they just called me 'The Factor' and it kind of stuck."
It's catchy, but also apt. O'Reilly is a big factor whenever he takes the ice and he's planning to be a factor on Thursday when the Leafs play in Boston.
For the first time since breaking the index finger on his left hand on March 4, the Clinton, Ont., native practised in a regular sweater on Wednesday.
"Didn't even notice it," O'Reilly said of his finger. "Yeah, feels 100 per cent and it will be nice to kind of get back into it. I got five games to tune up here and get ready for playoffs. I'm excited to be back."
The Leafs are excited too.
"He brings a little bit of a swagger to our team," said winger Alex Kerfoot. "He has that experience. He's won a Cup. He's won a Conn Smythe. He's been there before, done it and that just adds a certain element to your group that you can't really put into words. So, having him back really completes our lineup and makes us an even tougher team to defend against."
O'Reilly skated on the third line between Kerfoot and his former St. Louis Blues teammate Noel Acciari.
"We just wanted to get him in at centre, which is the first thing," coach Sheldon Keefe explained. "There is that. I just like the other lines, the way they have been, so it is a natural fit."
Auston Matthews continues to skate with Michael Bunting and Calle Jarnkrok while John Tavares is pivoting a loaded-up unit with William Nylander and Mitch Marner. David Kampf is with Zach Aston-Reese and Sam Lafferty on the fourth line.
"With O'Reilly in that spot there, he is going to have a lot of defensive utility playing with players that can defend really well," Keefe said. "We have gotten a lot out of the Kampf line. I think there is another line now that I believe will be able to add to the depth of our team in terms of matchups that we can just roll over the boards, play fast, and make it tough on the opposition. With our opponent tomorrow, we are going to certainly need that type of depth."
With Matthews, Tavares and O'Reilly down the middle, the Leafs feel better equipped to deal with the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins.
"It is a good test and a good first game for myself going right into the fire here," said O'Reilly who led the Blues to the Stanley Cup in Boston in 2019. "They play a smart game. They work. They’re detailed. They don't deviate. They stick to their structure and they're consistent with it."
In many ways that also describes O'Reilly.
"He's one of those guys who doesn't really need time to ramp up," said Kerfoot. "He doesn't really have inconsistencies in his game so, for us, that's great because coming down the stretch there's not too many games left before playoffs. He knows what he needs to do. He knows what he brings and he does it every, single night."
"He has that presence about him," Keefe concurred. "He is super confident in who he is and what he has accomplished and been through."
O'Reilly isn't limited at all despite having a couple fingers taped together.
"It is just buddy tape to keep the flexion with it," he said. "I didn't feel anything in the stick battles and such. It feels 100 per cent. Hopefully, it stays that way."
O'Reilly has won 67.5 per cent of his draws since joining the Leafs and isn't anticipating any issues at the dot.
"I don't know if it will be a full load of faceoffs tomorrow, but it is feeling good," he said.
O'Reilly played eight games with the Leafs before the injury. He spent six on the second line with Tavares. He started the last two on the third line. One of those games was with Kerfoot.
"He's really smart out there," O'Reilly said. "I think we want to establish ourselves with good forechecking and build offensive play from that. He's a really good player. I think we can create a lot together."
O'Reilly is well-acquainted with Acciari, who returned from his own three-game injury absence on Tuesday.
"We've penalty killed together," said O'Reilly of their time together in St. Louis. "We know each other very well. It is nice to know what he brings to the table with his intensity, his work ethic every shift, and his physicality. That's something we want to bring as a line — be physical, be a good forechecking line, and create offence from that."
Per usual, O'Reilly was the last man on the ice at practice. He worked on getting quick shots off in and around the net.
"Just trying to find it and get my touches in," he said with a chuckle. "You have to use the time you have to kind of tweak things and get ready."
Thursday's game in Boston provides the Leafs one last chance to measure themselves against the league's top team.
"It is nice to have a game like this at this stage of the schedule that is going to demand the best out of you," said Keefe.
"It's as big of a test as there's going to be," said Kerfoot. "It's our last chance to see them and we want to have a good performance."
Boston has taken two of three games from Toronto this season, including a 4-3 decision at TD Garden in January.
"You like to play in those hostile environments and that's really as hostile as it gets," said Kerfoot. "It's fun playing in those atmospheres and I'm sure a game against the Leafs they'll be amped up for."
With 125 points, the Bruins are 16 clear of any other team.
"It has just been impressive to watch and see the way that the players have just done it night in and night out," said Keefe. "The coaches have kept things moving and kept guys on board there. It has been really impressive. They could host the NHL Awards in their building this year. To me, they should be cleaning up. It has been so impressive what they have been able to do. To be so far away from the pack is impressive."
"That core, they've been doing it for a while there and it's a special group," said Acciari, who played for the Bruins from 2015 to 2019. "We have to find a way to crack that code."
The 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens own the all-time points record of 132. Boston has five games remaining.
After spending most of the season with either Marner or Nylander on his wing, Matthews is now playing without another core-four forward on his line.
"He is going to have the puck a lot more," Keefe said. "He is going to drive things a lot more himself. I thought he did a really good job of that last night. It is going to be on the wingers to do a little more work to get him the puck, earn pucks back, and stay involved and stay engaged."
Matthews fired six shots on net and sealed Tuesday's 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets with an empty-net goal.
"We had some good moments and maybe some not-so-good moments," Matthews said of the line. "I'm comfortable playing with both those guys. I've been playing with Jarny consistently. It's been good. We had some good chances and a couple shifts that you'd probably like back, but that's just how the game works most of the time."
"Last night is a difficult game to really assess," Keefe said. "Tomorrow will give us a better indication of what it looks like against an elite opponent with great depth. There are not going to be very many easy matchups. I believe Auston has the ability, but as we have talked about here, it is an easy switch to move things around there if we need to."
Keefe may look to get O'Reilly some shifts with Matthews.
"He hasn't spent much time with Matthews, but that was something I was wanting to work through," Keefe said. "I actually started to give him a couple of shifts there in Vancouver. They were two very dominant shifts. It looked like it was going to flip the game for us in Vancouver and then he got hurt. That was something we wanted to look at there. Maybe we will look at it again."
At the end of practice, Keefe pulled O'Reilly aside for a chat. The coach appreciates the veteran's low-maintenance approach.
"'Whatever you need,'" he said of O'Reilly's attitude. "He has moved around and played different positions and roles. He can be a facilitator, make plays and keep the puck moving. He has great defensive utility at the same time. He is a guy you want to get a lot out of."
The Leafs are hoping Marner will help spark some more production from Tavares.
"I thought that line was terrific watching it back last night," Keefe said."They were really good. They didn't get anything to go into the net, but they had the puck the entire game and weren't in our end very much at all, which is what you are looking to see. They will be challenged even greater tomorrow night. Whether it is Marner moving around or O'Reilly moving around, I can make one or two very subtle changes and still have the framework the same but give us a little more punch here and there."
The Leafs outshot the Jackets 8-5 in the nearly 11 minutes that Nylander, Tavares and Marner played together, per NaturalStatTrick.com. But Tavares remains stuck on one 5-on-5 goal in 16 games dating back to the start of March.
"We want to see what Mitch's presence there can do," Keefe acknowledged. "Mitch and John have done really well together. I am not as focused on John's 5-on-5 production in terms of offence necessarily. I believe it will come. John has had a lot of these types of dry spells if you want to call it that. He has continued to be very productive on the power play, which is great. To me, he has been really focused on his defensive play. He and his line had a real tough night against Detroit, but take that one out, and I think he has done a really nice job defensively. That, to me, is equally as important — making sure that is there ... He is a very streaky guy. A lot of scorers are. There is a reason why there aren’t many 80-goal scorers out there. If one or two go in, the confidence starts to come, and the pucks start to fall your way."
The Leafs held Marner out of Sunday's game, because they felt the winger needed some time to rest.
"Obviously it sucks," said Marner, who has suited up in every other game this season. "You don't want to miss games. You want to try and be out there with your team and help them win. Sometimes we got people in here that do all the stats ... I guess that's what they're paid to do and make sure that we're trying to look at a bigger picture. You always want to be out there with your team and help them try to win games so it was definitely a tough one, but there's bigger things at the end of the day."
Marner averages 21 minutes and 21 seconds of ice time per game, which is fifth among NHL forwards. Since the start of March, he's averaging 22 minutes and 33 seconds, which is second behind only Ottawa's Tim Stützle.
Staying healthy is front of mind for the Leafs, who have clinched a playoff spot and have a comfortable lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the race for home-ice advantage in the first round. Leafs Nation held its collective breath when Marner fell and had 175-pound forward Kent Johnson step on his leg during the second period of Wednesday's game.
"It's a scary incident," Marner said. "Right away it just felt weird. I didn't know, really, what it was. I assumed it was a skate. When I got back I just asked our trainers there if there was a cut or anything. Didn't feel like there was a cut so pretty lucky, but definitely a freak, little incident there."
Marner doesn't wear any extra protection on his legs.
"I got the cut-proof stuff on my wrists, but not on my legs," Marner said. "Maybe I was lucky that he just wasn't a heavy guy. You know, it was a bit freak play there, but lucky enough nothing came out of it."
Marner has been held off the scoresheet in consecutive games and remains five points shy of hitting 100 for the first time in his career.
Aston-Reese arrived at Leafs training camp on a pro tryout. On Tuesday, he scored twice to establish a new career high with 10 goals.
"It's pretty special," the 28-year-old said. "It feels good. It was a long summer not knowing what was going to happen. I always believed in myself and it's nice to be in a place that believes in me."
It hasn't been a smooth season for the native of Staten Island, N.Y., who produced just five goals and two assists through his first 59 games with the Leafs.
"It was just like something was a little bit off," he said. "I can't put a finger on it too much. The puck wasn't bouncing my way. It was maybe more of a mindset where I was feeling sorry for myself all the time instead of just going out there and just working through it. The biggest thing in my mindset that's changed is that every shift I'm trying to have full foot on the pedal, just trying to give every effort and come back to the bench exhausted."
Aston-Reese was a healthy scratch in two games following the trade deadline as the team moved to a 11-forward alignment in an attempt to incorporate new defencemen. The deadline served as a turning point for the gritty winger, who was shipped across the continent, from contending Pittsburgh to rebuilding Anaheim, last March.
"Having gone through it last year where, to me, it was a surprise that I was getting dealt, it's always in the back of your mind especially when you're not producing offensively," he said. "I was in that situation so it was definitely in the back of my mind but after that day comes and goes there's a sigh of relief."
And now the offence is starting to come. Aston-Reese has piled up five goals in his last 10 games.
"He has been excellent, I would say, from the trade deadline and maybe even a week or two before the trade deadline," Keefe said. "He has really settled in. He has played a lot of time with Kampf. The guys have really had some great chemistry. They are talking a lot. They know what the expectation is and what we need from them. He has scored some good goals for us which has got his confidence going offensively. He is scoring the right kind of goals for a guy like him. He is not getting odd-man rushes or anything like this. He is working for it. He is around the net, whether it is pucks hitting him, him tipping it or finding pucks in the slot."
At the end of most practices these days, Aston-Reese stays out late to work on deflections, tips and converting plays in close to the net. What sparked the extra effort?
"Maybe Ryan O'Reilly coming," Aston-Reese said. "If you watch him at the end of practice, he's always working on small, little details and offensive habits around the net. Curtis [Sanford], the goalie coach, and the goalies have been working on tips as well and [assistant] Manny [Malhotra] so we have a little group there at the end of practice and it's fun. You work on tipping it and you work on finishing that rebound and playing it like a game situation. It's definitely helping."
Joseph Woll could only laugh when asked what happened on the first Columbus goal on Tuesday.
"I can't say that’s happened to me before," the 24-year-old goalie said. "I wish I could it blame on the skates or something but I just fell. Yeah, caught a rut or something and tried to make a save in mid air. Didn't work."
Woll has worked hard on the mental side of the game and this was an easy mistake to move on from.
"There's not much I can really linger on," he said. "It happens. So, I'm just happy the guys got a couple goals for me."
Woll was solid the rest of the way to earn his fourth win in five NHL starts this season.
"In the second period, there was more action for him," Keefe noted. "I thought he was really good there. He held them off the sheet. At the end of the game, he keeps them at two. When that is the case, we are going to win a lot."
With Matt Murray out with a head injury, Woll could see more time down the stretch and may dress in playoff games.
"The biggest thing is to stay in the moment," said Woll. "I can't try to predict too far down the road. My goal is to come here every day and give my best to help this team be successful."
"He should be confident," said Keefe. "He's played really well for us. The last time we played Columbus was probably one of the games he would want back that he has played here. A bit of a do-over is a good thing for him. He has played well. We have lots of confidence in him. He has been a dominant goaltender at the AHL level this season. He has played well when he is here. Curtis loves working with him. His talent, work ethic, his athleticism — there is a lot there. He comes in, he's pretty even-keeled and he goes to work."
Lines at Wednesday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Jarnkrok
Nylander - Tavares - Marner
Kerfoot - O’Reilly - Acciari
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Lafferty
McCabe - Brodie
Giordano - Holl
Rielly - Schenn
Gustafsson - Liljegren