Leafs Ice Chips: Can Matthews spoil Binnington's homecoming?
Jordan Binnington has a pretty good poker face in his media sessions, but even he conceded tonight isn't just a normal game as he makes his first NHL start in his hometown.
"It's pretty special," the 26-year-old said. "My home city, my mom lives like 20 minutes away from here, so it's cool."
Curtis Joseph was Binnington's favourite Leafs goalie and he has fond memories of attending games as a kid.
"We'd come to one or two a year with my dad and he did a good job making sure I got here and seeing the action."
So, how many friends and family does he have coming tonight?
"Ah, we got a few, yeah," he said with a grin.
"I've already seen the list," said teammate and fellow Ontario native Ryan O'Reilly, "and the amount of people he's got coming, it’s amazing. Reminded myself of my first game when I had that too. It was like 50-plus people there and everywhere in the stands is someone. It’s an exciting thing."
Binnington was asked if he had ever dreamed of making a start in the building.
"I don't look too far ahead and I don't think I've ever done that," he said. "I've always dreamed of playing in the NHL and we're here now and it’s great to play in this arena."
Binnington and the Blues will face a stiff test against a Toronto team that has scored 14 goals in three games so far. Five of the goals have come off the stick of Auston Matthews, who has a healthy respect for Binnington, comparing him to Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen.
"He never gives up on a puck," Matthews said. "He's kind of like Fred, just calm, cool, collected in the net. Nothing really rattles him. Obviously, as a rookie, it's pretty amazing what he accomplished last year and just nothing really seems to faze him, so a tough guy to put the puck past."
Matthews did score one – a greasy one off his skate – during Toronto's game in St. Louis in February. It represented his only point in six career games against St. Louis. But Binnington got the last laugh that night, turning aside 31 of 33 shots and earning an overtime win.
Asked about Matthews, Binnington preferred to address the Leafs weapons as a group and noted he's aware of everyone's tendencies. But you better believe the Matthews shot is something the Blues are focused on.
"He releases it from any point," said O'Reilly, the reigning Conn Smythe and Selke winner. "It's so accurate and hard that it's deceiving. It's very impressive. He's one of the elite shooters in the game. When he's on the ice, he's a guy that finds a way to get lost and step in the right areas quickly and then lets a shot go and it’s in a back of the net. So you have to be looking over your shoulder and maybe be a bit closer to him to make it more difficult on him."
"He's going to become smarter the longer he plays in the league," observed Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, "and stronger and his shot's going to get harder and they've obviously put some good pieces around him. He can get the shot off in a lot of different situations and we got a guy who’s like that too [Vladimir Tarasenko]. Just got to make sure you stay on top of him and give him as little room as possible."
Binnington's arrival last January sparked an incredible run by St. Louis as the Blues climbed from last place to the Stanley Cup.
"When he came up, his dominance was amazing," gushed O'Reilly, "bringing that confidence to our team, and last year he was winning games on his own. He was the one who really sparked our team. We learned if we can be good in front of him we're going to have a chance to win a lot of games."
"Let's not kid ourselves," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "It wasn't pixie dust, it wasn't a miracle. They were that good. They were that deep and that good and they've had lots of playoff disappointments over a number of years. The other thing they did is, obviously, they improved their team down the middle. They've got elite centre ice, good, good D and the goalie played good, really good."
The Leafs believe they have similar pieces in place.
"We all believe that we're at the age now where we can do that," said Mitch Marner, "and take that to the far lengths and win that."
"They kind of just did everything right," said Matthews of the Blues’ run. "I mean, defensively solid, goaltending solid, scored big goals, their depth obviously helped them quite a lot throughout the playoffs, all four lines, all three pairs of D and, I mean, you need that. So we feel like we have that in this room to accomplish that, what they did."
But it's a long road to the playoffs and moments like Saturday's 4-1 blown lead against Montreal are reminders of how talent alone isn't enough.
"Let your structure and your play with the puck protect you instead of feeding transition and letting it hurt you," Babcock said. "I think those are all growing pains you go through. I think they're important lessons and you've got to take it and move on. Here's a good opportunity to do that."
St. Louis has won six straight against the Leafs, who have struggled to create offence against the Blues big defensive corps.
"It's going to be a hard matchup tonight," Marner said. "It should be a real physical matchup, which should be good for our team, see where we match-up and we got to be ready to play."
John Tavares became a father for the first time on the eve of training camp with son Jace arriving on Sept. 11. The centre has written the name, ‘Jacer,’ on his stick. It's the first time in his career he's written something like that on his stick.
"It's just a lot more than about you now, life in general, so just always nice to feel him with you, especially with how much we go on the road and travel. Just always a nice friendly reminder," Tavares said.
So, why ‘Jacer’ instead of just his name ‘Jace’? Apparently childhood friend Sam Gagner is responsible for giving the not-quite-one-month-old Jace a hockey nickname.
"Sammy is the one who actually gave it to him," Tavares revealed. "He messaged me and called him that so it stuck with me right away."
And Tavares, who wears No. 91, also has Jace's date of birth written on his stick.
"He was supposed to be due 9/9/19, which I kind of liked," he said with a smile, "and then 9/11/19 with all the nines and ones is pretty cool."
Lines at Leafs morning skate:
Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander
Kapanen - Tavares - Marner
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Moore
Petan - Spezza / Gauthier
Extras: Timashov - Shore - Hyman
Rielly - Ceci
Muzzin - Barrie
Sandin - Holl
Extras: Dermott - Marincin
Power-play units at Leafs morning skate:
Marner - Tavares - Matthews
Kerfoot - Petan - Nylander
Lines at Blues morning skate: