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Leafs stars aim to ‘get back on track’ against McDavid, surging Oilers

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs and Oilers (optional) skated in Edmonton on Tuesday ahead of tonight’s game.

Sheldon Keefe hopes Saturday's humbling 5-3 loss to Nathan MacKinnonCale Makar and the Colorado Avalanche will help the Leafs get back on track in another superstar showdown. 

"I do think coming off that Colorado game, it helps us for this one here in terms of the preparation," the Leafs head coach said. "Different teams, but there's certainly similarities there in terms of effectiveness on special teams and elite calibre players."

After watching his team squander a 3-0 lead against the Avalanche, Keefe heaped praise on Colorado's top players. 

"When MacKinnon's line is out there with Makar and [Devon] Toews, the calibre of play is not the NHL," Keefe said on Saturday night. "It is another league. I didn't think we were handling that very well."

The coach moved William Nylander to the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to try and neutralize the threat, but it didn't work. MacKinnon scored the game-winning goal late in the third period. 

Matthews and Marner, who played on different lines during Sunday's loss to the Detroit Red Wings, will be reunited on Tuesday with a matchup against Edmonton's top line – Connor McDavid between Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – looming. 

There was a buzz in the building on Tuesday morning. 

"Usually when good hockey players see other good hockey players, there's a little internal competition between themselves and wanting to be the best," said Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch. "I think there's some excitement [with] that part of it." 

McDavid has recorded at least one point in all 10 games during Edmonton's current franchise-record winning streak. Hyman leads the Oilers with eight goals during the 10-game surge into a playoff spot. 

"They're coming at you with a lot of speed," Matthews observed. "They're trying to attack, which is why they're very successful. In the end, I think it's just knowing who you're out there against and trying to manage that and being above guys, and in the D-zone communicating with our guys."

These trips tend to get Toronto's attention. The Leafs are 9-1-1 here since Edmonton opened its beautiful new building during the 2016-17 season. The one regulation loss, though, came last year. 

"They've put together a nice couple months here," said Keefe. "We're going to have to be at our best and in these situations in the past we have been."

John Tavares, who was dropped to the third line on Sunday, was back on the second line with William Nylander and Matthew Knies at the morning skate. That group may see a lot of Edmonton's second line, which features Leon Draisaitl between Evander Kane and Warren Foegele

Tavares has gone four games without a point. Nylander, who politely declined an interview request on Tuesday morning, has gone three games without a point. Matthews has gone consecutive games without a point. 

It is crucial that Toronto's stars remember what went wrong on Saturday. The big lesson? 

"Just making sure of how aware you need to be when it's time to defend and check," Keefe cautioned, "but also just how much harder the puck is to come by and how much you need to value it when you do get a chance to get it. That's really it."

Toronto's situational awareness has been lacking during a three-game winless run (0-2-1). They have blown leads in each loss. So, understandably, Matthews wanted to keep the focus on the team game and not any matchup with McDavid.  

"It's just two points on the line," Matthews stressed. "You guys play it up a lot more than what it really means. Obviously, we're going up against a good team with some really good players on their team and they’re playing really well right now. We're trying to get back on track as a team so that's really the main focus."

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Edmonton is allowing just 1.7 goals against during the win streak, which started on Dec. 21. They have killed 90.3 per cent of penalties. 

"There's this narrative out there that we need to win 6-5 or whatever," McDavid said, "but we've won a lot of hockey games over the last couple years. We know how to win games and right now we're doing it by not giving up too much. We've been getting good goaltending and the kill's been good and we've been finding different ways to win games and that's a great sign." 

The Oilers are vowing not to let up despite the run of success. They haven't forgotten how poorly they started the year. 

"We don't have much to hang our hat on right now," McDavid insisted. "We got to keep it rolling. We knew we needed a few streaks to get ourselves back into it and we've done that and now it's about staying there and keeping our game at this high level." 

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Tavares has matched his longest point drought as a Leaf. The last time he was held without a point in four straight games was actually before the pandemic (Jan. 18 to Feb. 1, 2020).

"Sometimes maybe pucks are bouncing your way or going in at the rate you'd like," Tavares acknowledged. "Overall, big picture, there's a lot of good things to my game."

Tavares was held without a shot on Saturday and was benched for much of the third period against Colorado. 

"When you're in the moment in a game, you're just trying to be ready for that next opportunity and that next shift and going out there and executing," he said. "You control what you can control and be ready to go out there and execute. In a situation like that trying to be external as well and encouraging your teammates and being supportive."

Tavares managed just one shot on Sunday against the Red Wings. He finished minus-2 in both games over the weekend. 

"Especially as the captain you want to set that standard and understand the details that have to be there," he said. "So just continue to do good things and have a good process and over time things will start to turn your way."

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Knies was dropped to the fourth line on Sunday. 

"We're seeing a young player that's adjusting to the league," Keefe said. "He's been playing a lot with Matthews on the top line, which comes with it the top matchups, top D pairs, it's challenging."

Knies missed a game due to illness earlier this season and was held out an extra game after that because Keefe felt it would help the 21-year-old rookie boost his energy levels. He produced a goal and an assist in his next game. 

"He was shot out of a cannon," Keefe recalled of the Dec. 16 performance against Pittsburgh. "It shows that at times with a young guy if you take a step backwards, it can help them just manage everything that comes from being a first-year NHL player, first-year pro."

Knies was back in the top six – beside Tavares and Nylander – at Tuesday's morning skate. 

"It's been a challenge," Knies said of the NHL grind. "I'm not used to playing this much hockey. If it were a college season, my season would be over with. So, it's new that you just keep playing. I just got to manage my body and manage my workload. I think I just got to stay prepped, stay taking care of myself well and I think that will handle itself."

Tuesday will be game No. 40 for Knies this season. He played 40 regular-season games at the University of Minnesota last year. In the NCAA, there's a lot more practice time with games scheduled mostly for weekends. 

"Lots of time to refine your game," Keefe pointed out. "Lots of time to adjust your game or work at something that you might be struggling with. The NHL, the pace of it doesn't allow for much of that. You got to be mentally tough. You got to adjust through video. You got to manage to take care of your body."

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Tyler Bertuzzi, who has just one goal in 22 games, has been dropped to the third line with Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok. Keefe labelled the gritty winger's play as inconsistent. 

"It's taken him a while to get going in each game that we've played here of late," the coach said. "I think when the team gets going and he's in it, he's competitive. At times the game gets away from him a little bit early."

Keefe believes this road trip, which will also include stops in Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle, will bring out the best in Bertuzzi. 

"It seems the harder or more competitive or more important the game is the better we get from him," Keefe noted. "The game against Colorado was a bit of an exception there."

Like Tavares, Bertuzzi was benched in the third period against the Avalanche. 


There’s one lineup change from Sunday's shuffle, which is sticking Pontus Holmberg on the top line with Matthews. 

"He's an incredible, incredible player," Matthews raved last week. "Like, his skill level, it's up there with some of the best guys I've seen, honestly. He's got a great stick and really good anticipation and he made a nice play to knock the puck away." 


Hyman is on pace for 55 goals. Are his old Toronto teammates surprised? 

"No, not really, honestly," Matthews said. "He's a guy that lives at the net. He's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever played with and playing with a pretty good player there too [McDavid] which helps."

Hyman never scored more than 21 goals as a Maple Leaf. His best 82-game pace in his hometown was 34. 

"He's always had good touch around the net," Keefe said. "He knows how to get to the right spots and he's playing with the right guy to get the puck right where he needs it. So, in that sense, I'm not surprised. He's a relentless player so when gets confident, he's going to be dangerous."

Hyman isn't just scoring right now, he's generating a lot of chances. He has 42 shots on goal over the last 10 games, eight more than any other Edmonton player in this span.

"Not all free-agent signings work out, but Zach has been above and beyond anyone's expectations, I would say, from the moment he got here," McDavid gushed. "Not only on the ice, but off the ice, what he's done for our room and the leader he is, the person he is, an amazing person. He's having an unbelievable year this year. I felt like he should've been an All-Star, but that's just my opinion. I feel like he's bringing his game to a whole other level."

During his time in Toronto, Hyman earned plenty of praise but a lot of it was about the blue-collar elements of his game. 

"He's continuing to evolve," McDavid said. "When he first came into the league he was viewed as a penalty killer and third-line guy, checker, works hard, and now he doesn't kill penalties at all and he stays out for two minutes on the power play, so he's changing his game a little bit."

The meat-and-potatoes game is still there. Hyman, per usual, is making a living around the net. He's not afraid to stand beside the post and serve as a backboard of sorts. 

"His first year here, we kept telling him to get to the back side and for whatever reason he couldn't seem to find a way there and then during that playoff run he tucked himself back there and scored a few goals so he's kind of stuck with that," McDavid noted. "It takes a lot of courage to stand back there with a guy like [Evan] Bouchard shooting it or somebody shooting it. It could go off a stick or whatever, but he stands back there and is willing to score any way he can." 

Hyman has only hit the scoresheet in one of his three career games against the Leafs. He had a goal and an assist during a 5-2 Oilers win in Edmonton last March.

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Joseph Woll (high ankle sprain) is on the trip, but isn't expected to practice with the team, per Keefe. 


Lines at Leafs morning skate: 

Holmberg - Matthews - Marner 
Knies - Tavares - Nylander 
Bertuzzi - Domi - Jarnkrok 
McMann - Kampf  - Gregor 
Reaves, Robertson 

Rielly - Brodie 
Benoit - McCabe 
Giordano - Liljegren 
Lagesson - Timmins 

Jones starts