Slumping Tavares ‘not trying to force things’ during five-game point drought
Sheldon Keefe made a point of catching up with John Tavares before the morning skate.
"Talking to him today, he feels good," the Maple Leafs head coach reported. "Just him being steady ... There's a lot of a belief in the group and in himself."
The Leafs captain is as even-keeled as they come and that hasn't changed even as he struggles to score and as his team struggles to win.
Tavares has gone five games without a point, which is his longest drought in six seasons with Toronto.
"Just trying to play a really good overall game and have a good process to my game," Tavares said of his mindset. "Not trying to force things when they’re not there or manufacture something out of nothing."
On Wednesday, Keefe noted that Tavares didn't seem to have the same pop of late. The coach wondered if the 33-year-old centre was feeling fatigue amid Toronto's busy schedule. Thursday night's showdown with the Flames in Calgary will be the team's sixth game in 10 days.
"You're not going to feel great every game and that's the nature of it," Tavares acknowledged. "I've been through it before. I still feel like I'm skating well."
This dry spell matches Tavares' longest streak of games without a point over the last 12 seasons (since 2012-13).
Tavares has been minus-2 in each of his last three games. It's the first time that's happened in his career, per the Elias Sports Bureau.
"Just continue to have good habits," he stressed, "continue to work on the things that have brought me success and be sharp and play my game. Just continue to stay with it."
"I have confidence in him that he's going to find his stride again and catch fire," said linemate Matthew Knies. "He's too good of a player for it to not come."
Tavares is setting the tone for the Leafs, who are winless in four (0-3-1).
"I don't see the guys wavering in any way and that starts with our captain," Keefe noted.
"There's always urgency with our group," Tavares said. "Obviously when things haven't gone your way you can sense frustration and things like that get in, but I think we've just continued to stay with it."
Toronto has blown a lead in each of the last four outings, including multi-goal leads in three of the games.
"We're just trying to stay strong mentally," said Knies. "We have the capability in this room to really turn it around and we just need one bounce and we'll be right back into our playoff form."
Tavares is quick to point out that his team is usually pretty good at closing games. Entering this current four-game stretch, the Leafs were 15-1-2 when up by multiple goals this season.
"The group feels good," said Keefe. "They're confident. They know where we have to be better and things we need to do to close out games and extend leads and all the different things that happen through a game."
Keefe, like Tavares, is staying the course. He won't be making any lineup changes on Thursday.
"You're seeking some consistency," the coach explained. "We've moved the group around a little bit, but we've stayed with these 18 skaters for a good chunk of time here now and you want to give it some time. We want to be able to put ourselves in position to win a game and this group has done it for us so let's stay with it."
The Leafs held a lengthy meeting featuring some blunt talk on Wednesday.
"We're in that mindset now where you gotta do whatever it takes to get that win," veteran defenceman Mark Giordano told reporters. "You get on these slides and things start to pile up. Whatever the scenario is tonight, we got to play in that moment to win the game."
The Leafs will face a stiff test. The Flames are heating up with seven wins in their last nine games to pull within two points of a playoff spot.
"Very proud," said centre Nazem Kadri of the hot streak. "Job's not finished. We had to crawl ourselves out of a hole and now we’re trying to be one of the better clubs."
"They're a hard-working group with lots of depth," Keefe noted. "Not much difference between lines one to three. Mobility on defence. It's a good team. There's no nights off in this league so certainly tonight is going to be a tough one."
Calgary has come a long way since dropping six straight games from late October to early November.
"We've done a heck of a job to bring ourselves back to life here," Kadri said.
Giordano, 40, may be suiting up for the final time in Calgary where he played for 15 seasons.
"It's nice," he said. "A big part of my life was in this city."
Mikael Backlund just pushed Giordano down to third on the franchise's games played list. Giordano sent a congratulatory text message to his successor as Flames captain.
"The way he takes care of himself that's everything you want in your young guys to look up," Giordano gushed. "As he got older, Backs started having way more of a voice in the room and I'm happy they made him captain. He deserves it."
Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) January 12, 2024
At the start of the season, BarDown asked Leafs players to name the "team with the player you're most excited to play against."
"I just can't wait to hunt him down," the gritty winger said with a smile.
Bertuzzi and Oesterle were teammates in Detroit for a couple seasons.
"Just very similar people," Oesterle said. "Both into outdoors stuff. We were able to click early in Detroit."
The pair had dinner together on Wednesday night.
Oesterle also enjoys the opportunity to go up against his pal.
"I try to get under his skin," he said.
"Just talking a lot. Just in his ear a lot. It's all in good fun with him."
Bertuzzi only has one goal in 23 games, but brings a lot to the table beyond scoring.
"He's tough," Oesterle said. "Down low in the corners and in front of the net, he's a pest. He's a rat out there. You never know what he's going to do. He could try to dangle you or he could try to take it to the net. It's always tough to play against him."
Bertuzzi was not available to the media on Thursday morning.
The Leafs cancelled Wednesday's practice, but that didn't stop defenceman Simon Benoit from taking the ice.
"I just decided I wanted to skate a little bit and get more touches," he said. "I just felt I needed to and I wanted to."
Benoit worked on receiving passing and getting quick shots off with assistant coach Mike Van Ryn.
"I was working on little details," he said. "I felt I needed to get on the ice and get used to the altitude a bit."
Benoit played a season-high 19 minutes and 48 seconds on Tuesday against the high-octane Oilers. The 25-year-old was the only regular to skate on Wednesday.
"It's been busy, but we're used to that schedule," Benoit said. "I played 78 games [with the Anaheim Ducks] last year, I know what it's like. Luckily here we don't get a lot of long travel, because we have a lot of teams close. It's been good so far."
Leafs lines at Thursday's skate:
Holmberg - Matthews - Marner
Knies - Tavares - Nylander
Bertuzzi - Domi - Jarnkrok
McMann - Kampf - Gregor
Rielly - Brodie
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Liljegren
Lagesson - Timmins
Power-play units at Thursday's skate:
Rielly, Nylander, Marner, Matthews, Tavares
Liljegren, Jarnkrok, Knies, Domi, Bertuzzi