Leafs emerge from All-Star break with 'playoff-type mindset'
The Toronto Maple Leafs practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Sunday.
Lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan Will Arnett is feeling "pretty good" about his team right now.
"Look, do you want to be entertained? I do," the actor, who served as a celebrity co-captain of Team Connor McDavid during the All-Star Game, told TSN. "Sometimes entertainment takes a different shape. There have been some injuries, ups and downs, different goalies, etcetera, etcetera. We know we got a lot of great pieces on this team and there is chemistry and when that chemistry is firing it works really, really well."
But that chemistry has been inconsistent so far this season. Toronto is sitting in the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference with 58 points in 47 games. The Leafs have a six-point cushion on the ninth-place New York Islanders, who are just outside the playoff picture. The Islanders and Leafs will play on Monday night when the unofficial second half of the regular season starts in Toronto.
Sheldon Keefe thinks a playoff race will bring out the best in his group.
"The competitiveness of the division and conference is healthy for our team," the Maple Leafs head coach said following Sunday's practice. "It is going to demand the absolute best from us. We have responded well when we have been challenged and pushed or things have been difficult this season or in seasons past. With this group, in particular, I've liked how we have responded and handled things. The fact that it is going to be challenging — I would expect it to be right to the very end — is good and healthy for our group. We are going to have to have a playoff-type mindset coming out of the break and all the way through."
Toronto hasn't really been in a down-to-the-wire playoff race since Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were rookies back in the 2016-17 season. Every year since then has seen the team in a comfortable position down the stretch. There was the potential for a tense finish in 2019-20, but the regular season was cut short by the COVID pandemic.
The Leafs are currently one point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have played three more games, for the third and final automatic playoff spot out of the Atlantic Division. The Detroit Red Wings, another divisional rival, also have 58 points, but have also played three more games. There are three Metropolitan Division teams – the Pittsburgh Penguins (46 games played), New Jersey Devils (47 games played) and Washington Capitals (47 games played) – at 51 points.
"It is kind of what we expected in terms of the competitiveness inside of the division and conference," Keefe said. "That is not a big surprise. In terms of where we are at, I liked how we were trending and playing before the break. It gives us some positive momentum here. Hopefully, the break isn't disruptive and we can get back to it."
"Our team's in a great position to be primed for a run in the back half of the season," said defenceman Morgan Rielly.
Toronto won three straight games before the bye week and All-Star break, including a sweep of a home-and-home series against the Winnipeg Jets.
"Even though it's been a little bit of time here and some of that momentum may stop, still, it puts a good feeling in the group," said captain John Tavares.
The Leafs can match their longest win streak of the season by beating the Islanders on Monday.
The team had a meeting before Sunday's practice to get revved up for the stretch drive.
"We were talking about being more consistent," said winger Tyler Bertuzzi. "We've been up and down and played a good stretch of games and then kind of faltered a bit, so just be more consistent."
There is some restlessness in Toronto these days, but at least one high-profile supporter is enjoying the ride.
"As a fan, I'm enjoying it," said Arnett, who sported a Maple Leafs hat during the All-Star player draft on Thursday night. "This league, you just got to get in the playoffs. There's only one time that it matters to do well and that's when the playoffs starts.
Ilya Samsonov spent the bye week in Cancun, Mexico on a family vacation with his parents, wife and young son.
"Nice weather. Nice food. A little bit rest [from] of hockey," the 26-year-old goaltender said. "A little bit recharger, yeah."
Samsonov won three straight heading into the break with a sparkling .960 save percentage in those games. He's eager to get back in a rhythm.
"I notice first couple, three practices, is probably hard to see puck, but it's coming back quick," he said.
Samsonov will start again on Monday.
"He did a terrific job for us before the break and was able to take some time away, but he also voluntarily cut his break short and got back on the ice," Keefe pointed out. "That shows me where his head is at and what he is thinking here. We are excited about how he has responded and built himself up. He has earned the net coming out of the break."
Samsonov will likely see Ilya Sorokin at the other end of the ice on Monday night.
"This is interesting," he said. "I like to play against good goalies. It's a good opportunity, but I don't think today about this too much. I just enjoy my time after practice, but tomorrow I will be ready and try to prepare as hard as possible."
Samsonov has vowed to live in the moment as he looks to rebuild his game after a disastrous start to the season. He cleared waivers on Jan. 1 and spent time away from the Leafs to reset mentally.
Fourth-line centre David Kampf missed Sunday's practice.
"He got banged up a bit just before the break," Keefe revealed. "They weren't happy with how it settled down throughout the break. He is not quite ready. He is going to get an MRI today."
Kampf will not play on Monday and is listed as day-to-day.
McMann is poised to return after missing the last game before the break to rest a lingering injury issue.
"He stayed with it and skated yesterday just to be sure he would be good to practice," Keefe said. "It seems like he is ready to go."
Tavares enjoyed some warm weather and family time during the break, but is eager to get back to the regular season grind.
"As you get a little bit older, as you let the engine wind down a little too much, it gets a little bit harder to start it," the 33-year-old centre said. "So, I think it's important to stay active, stay moving."
"I don't think he likes too much time away," Keefe observed. "He is one of a handful of guys who traveled with his gear. That is what he likes to do: stay active. But time away and time with family are really important."
Tavares snapped a career long nine-game point drought with a power-play goal in the final game before the break. He has gone 16 straight games without scoring at even strength.
"Obviously you want to make sure you get some rest and recover and do those things, but important to get yourself back, Tavares said, "especially with the intensity and the competitive nature and traditionally how the games get after the All-Star break."
Tavares is determined to hold off Father Time as long as possible. And the Oakville, Ont. native is still holding out hope that he'll be in the mix to represent Team Canada at upcoming international events.
"Of course, of course," the 2014 Olympic gold medallist confirmed. "You always want that opportunity to play for your country and be a part of that. Been fortunate enough to do it in the past and it's been really special ... You look at the talent and the players that are obviously going to be there, we know who those guys are, you still strive to push to play at that level and have the chance to play with and against those players."
During the All-Star festivities, commissioner Gary Bettman announced that NHL players would be taking part in the 2026 and 2030 Olympics. There will also be a Four Nations Face-off event featuring Canada, the United States, Sweden and Finland next February. And the goal is to hold a World Cup in 2028 and 2032.
"It's phenomenal," Tavares said. "Just the plan that's trying to be put into place for international hockey and the emphasis on that. I think you see it in other sports. What comes up in my mind is soccer and how they got a real well-balanced schedule with international soccer and their league play and the important trophies that they play for, so creating that in hockey can go a long way in continuing to grow the game. And for current hockey fans and the players and the game itself, just how special it is, how spectacular that hockey is, and I think we know with the type of players and generation we’re in right now why it's going to be must-watch TV, must-watch hockey."
Bertuzzi looked a lot different as he hit the ice on Sunday. The 28-year-old had his trademark long hair cut off during the break.
"First time I've done it mid-season," Bertuzzi said with a smile. "The guys gave me some good looks this morning."
"A little lighter," Tavares quipped. "Freshened up a bit."
Bertuzzi has gone 14 games without a goal, but losing the locks wasn't about changing his luck. The motivation was more meaningful. Bertuzzi donated the hair to Wigs for Kids, which provides free, hand-tied hairpieces to children with medical related hair loss.
"I donated my hair last year and the lady who does it for me [Alyssa Bellestri, a Detroit-area hairstylist] is in Michigan too so it was perfect timing," Bertuzzi said. "It's obviously tough for the kids and the families and little things like that make a difference."
Bertuzzi recently welcomed his second child, a son, to the world and the bye week came at the perfect time.
"It was great timing," Bertuzzi said. "He was born in Michigan and we went back for the break ... I feel really good. It's good to kind of get away and clear your mind and just be with family and friends and reset."
Matthews, Marner, Rielly and William Nylander joined forces to help Team Matthews win the All-Star Game on Saturday.
"The win just put the cherry on the top," said Nylander, who was making his debut at the event. "The weekend was incredible from the beginning to the finish. I enjoyed every moment."
Rielly was also a first-time All-Star.
"The only thing that surprised me was nerves," the longest-serving Leaf said. "I didn't expect to get nervous or anything like that before the game. When you're in that environment around all those elite players I think I was a little nervous and I didn't expect that."
Less than 24 hours after the event concluded, the quartet of Leafs all-stars was back on the ice for a 30-minute skills session with the team's development staff. They did not take part in the main practice.
"We just wanted to be mindful of what they have been going through in the last little bit," Keefe said. "They were in the building today and took part in our meeting, but I left it to them to decide what they needed or wanted to get done on the ice. They have been skating and touching the puck. They wanted to get out there and get some work in, but at the same time, it was clear they needed some time to recover from all sorts of fun, being in demand, and all of the things that come with being a part of that event, which seemed as though it was a terrific event. I know they enjoyed their time. We are proud of how they represented themselves and the organization."
Matthews scored twice in the final game against Team McDavid and was named MVP. Nylander came out on top in the 1-on-1 breakaway challenge during the skills competition on Friday.
It was the third All-Star Game for Marner, but it had a bigger impact than his previous trips to St. Louis and south Florida.
"It’s been pretty special for me," Marner said. "Growing up always dreaming of playing in an All-Star Game and to have it in the city I grew up in and having everyone that’s been a big part of my life here enjoying it with me, it’s been special. We talked about it all weekend long, how we wanted to be the winners of it."
Islanders all-star centre Mathew Barzal and Matthews spent time together preparing for the shooting accuracy event ahead of the skills competition. They had the targets up and everything.
"We were just messing around," Barzal said. "Threw $100 on it. Yeah, probably not the best bet for me to go head-to-head with him in a shooting competition."
Matthews finished second in the shooting accuracy event behind only McDavid.
"He's a student of the game," Barzal said. "I love the game as well so we were just messing around."
There will be no messing around on Monday with the Islanders looking to claw their way back into a playoff spot. The team's inconsistent play cost coach Lane Lambert his job on Jan. 20. New York is 1-2-1 since Patrick Roy took over behind the bench.
"He is the man, truly," Barzal said. "So much respect for him. Not that I don't have respect for every coach in the NHL, but it's Patrick Roy. I mean, three Conn Smythes, four Stanley Cups, and his message to our team and to me personally, it meant a lot ... He's a guy that, it's a cliche, but you want to run through a wall for."
Barzal has five points, 14 shots and a plus-four rating in the last four games while averaging 24 minutes of ice time. He logged 19 minutes and 21 seconds this season under Lambert.
"I do feel like my overall play is actually the best it's been in my career," Barzal said. "The last five or six games have probably been the best five, six games of my career just overall with back checking and takeaways and taking the puck to the net."
Is the coaching change part of that?
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't huge," Barzal acknowledged. "If you were going bring in a guy, Patrick Roy is the perfect guy. "
Leafs goalie Joseph Woll remained in Toronto during the break to rehab a high ankle sprain, which has kept him sidelined since Dec. 7. He did not take part in Sunday's practice.
"He got in a lot of work when we were away to the point where they felt giving him the weekend off from skating was appropriate," Keefe said. "You will see him join the guys for the skate tomorrow morning and look to progress from there. He was doing well today. It is more about just managing his situation. He is certainly not ahead of schedule of where they thought he would be, but they are right on schedule and it is just a matter of continuing to progress."
Woll will not play this week, Keefe said.
The Leafs also have games on Wednesday against the Dallas Stars and in Ottawa against the Senators on Saturday.
Lines at Sunday's practice:
Knies - Tavares - Bertuzzi
Robertson - Domi - Gregor
McMann - Holmberg - Reaves
Lagesson - Brodie
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Liljegren
Injured: Jarnkrok, Kampf, Woll
Absent: Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Rielly
Power play unit at Sunday's practice:
Domi - Bertuzzi - Robertson