The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre on Saturday.
When the Leafs opened training camp 2.0 on July 13 there were questions about the conditioning of Auston Matthews, who had missed out on a couple weeks of ice time due to a positive COVID-19 test. Those questions have been answered and Sheldon Keefe won't be worried about monitoring the centre's minutes in Game 1 on Sunday night.
"Auston's fine in that regard," the Leafs coach said in a Zoom media session. "I think he's right there with everyone else both on our team and I suspect around the league. He hasn't missed a beat since we've opened camp. He hasn't missed a rep. He hasn't missed a day. He's been doing all the work like everybody else. I believe he's ready and I'm not planning on holding back on him or any of our other guys."
Matthews averaged 20 minutes and 58 seconds of ice time per game after Keefe took over behind the bench in November. He played 18 minutes and 26 seconds in Tuesday's exhibition game against the Canadiens finishing with three shots and a minus-one rating.
"I feel good," Matthews said. "Tuesday, physically, for me I felt good and that was probably the most important thing for me. Your touch and timing and feel and everything kind of comes back as you play more games, but I think physically I felt solid and throughout the week I've continued to feel better and better throughout practices and hopefully [I can] start out on the right foot tomorrow."
Matthews will likely see a lot of the Blue Jackets' top defence pair of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Jones hasn't played a meaningful game since fracturing his ankle way back on Feb. 8. John Tortorella was asked if there was any reluctance to play him in the 30-minute range considering the long layoff.
"Nope," the Jackets coach said. "Jonesy can play forever so we'll see how the game is laid out and how it's going."
Jones averaged 28 minutes and 32 seconds in last year's playoffs to lead the league.
UPDATE: On Sunday morning, Tortorella announced that Joonas Korpisalo will start Game 1 for the Blue Jackets.
"I'm not explaining it so don't even go there," the coach said. "They're both capable, we decided on Korpi."
Jones noted Korpisalo "was an all-star this year, I think a lot of people forget that ... I know he's going to play well."
How does Tortorella view the goaltending match-up in the series?
"Very comfortable with our goaltending," Tortorella said. "I know nothing about Andersen."
The truth is we all know a lot more about Frederik Andersen than we do the Columbus tandem of Elvis Merzlikins and Korpisalo, who have never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Andersen, meanwhile, has 48 playoff games on his resume although he hasn't won a series since 2015 when he reached the Western Conference Final as a member of the Anaheim Ducks.
“He's definitely a guy that really enjoys the process and he enjoys practising and trying to get better," observed defenceman Morgan Rielly. "I think come playoff time all that stuff becomes that much more important. He wants to prove himself again. He's very motivated, that's who he is as a person, he wants to prove people wrong and be a big part of what we're doing. We're lucky to have him on this team and he brings it every day so I would expect him to be ready."
Korpisalo is 5-3-0 with a .914 save percentage in his career against the Leafs, including splitting two games against Toronto back in October. Merzlikins has never faced the Leafs.
"I know Elvis just from watching a couple of their games," winger Mitch Marner said. "I know when Korpisalo did go down he went in and was playing very well for their team and playing with a lot of confidence. For us, the mindset can't change playing either goalie. We know this team likes to get in a lot shot lanes so for forwards it's about trying to find spaces where we can help our D get a shot through to us for a tip, try to make quick plays to get people closer to the net."
The Jackets finished third this season in blocks per 60 minutes and, per Sportlogiq, led the NHL by blocking 32.3 per cent of opponents shots.
The top priority for the Leafs in training camp and the lead-up to this series has been improving their overall team defence.
"As a group, we have to understand the importance of playing defence," said Rielly when asked for the key to beating the Jackets. "I think we do that when we have the puck and we're able to turn it up quickly and break out quickly. We know what they like to do and how they like to play so now it's on us to just go out and execute."
Preventing the Jackets, who led the NHL in even-strength goals (22) created off the forecheck, from getting their cycle game going is crucial. How do the Leafs defencemen do that?
"That question can turn into a full team thing pretty quick," said defenceman Travis Dermott. "It has a lot to do with everyone supporting each other, lots of communication and I think just taking pride in our defensive game before we jump into the offence."
Per Sportlogiq, no team in the NHL gave up more even strength goals (52) off cycles than the Leafs this year. But Marner is confident his team can reverse that trend thanks to the system tweaks instituted by Keefe during his first training camp at the helm.
"We've had a lot of time to study it, go over it, talk to each other about it," Marner said. "For us, I think it's just making sure five guys are around the net. We know this team really likes to generate a lot from below the goal line, giving it out in front to the slot, jamming pucks in so I think as a five-man group on the ice we just got to make sure we're staying tight with each other, talking to each other and when we do get the chance to exit we do it cleanly. We don't want to be playing a chip and chase kind of game against this team."
Keefe applauded his players for "an enhanced level of focus" as they worked on improving defensively, but the coach is also being careful to ensure the group doesn't stray from its identity.
"We can't lose sight of who we are as a team and we need to be really good offensively here because we are playing against a team that makes it very tough on you defensively," Keefe said. "If we're not sharp and don't have a good plan offensively, it's going to be tough for us. We can be as good as we want defensively, but if we don't find ways to score it's going to be tough to win."
Nick Robertson skated on the third line again at practice and afterwards Keefe confirmed the 18-year-old will make his NHL debut on Sunday night.
"I believe he's prepared and ready for it and that's why we're confident in putting him in," said Keefe. "I talked to him today telling him the Montreal game he played in exhibition was a good step for him to get some good experience but just reminding him it's going to be a lot harder starting tomorrow and he's got to be prepared for that. We're interested in seeing how he can handle it."
The Jackets also have a player looking to make the jump from major junior hockey to the Stanley Cup playoffs although London winger Liam Foudy has at least a couple NHL games of experience under his belt thanks to an emergency call-up in February.
"Thing I like about Fouds is, he's not afraid," Tortorella said following Thursday night's exhibition game. “He's not afraid to make a play. A very intelligent player."
London Knights general manager Mark Hunter called this back in June. He saw Foudy, who turned 20 in February, take a leap forward at the World Juniors where he was named one of Team Canada's top three players en route to a gold medal.
"Some players take another step after a big tournament and find confidence in themselves to put everything together and I think he calmed down and found calmness in his game," Hunter told TSN. "He let his hands do more work with his legs and put it all together. First half, sometimes he was inconsistent, being too wild on the ice and then at the World Juniors he was excellent. He really took steps in that tournament and getting better and better every game and he came back afterwards in London and was excellent, maybe the best player in the OHL after the World Juniors. So, he really came back confident and you couldn't get the puck away from him. He had confidence in his hands and legs at the same time. I sometimes think he loses some confidence with his hands and where to go, well, he had it all figured out. He was excellent in the second half."
Foudy has been skating on the third line alongside Gustav Nyquist and Boone Jenner.
Talking to Mark Hunter on ...— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) June 24, 2020
* Underrated part of Lafreniere's game
* Drysdale may be NHL-ready now
* Foudy's playoff potential for #CBJ
* Brochu's breakthrough
* Tourigny's turn
* McMichael's big step after #AllCaps camp
1-on-1 with @LondonKnights GM👇https://t.co/Z5qLww7G8K
With the Leafs able to roll with Matthews and John Tavares down the middle, there's a lot of pressure on top Jackets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois to not only hold his own, but win the battle regardless of who he lines up against.
"We're going to need Luc to play his best hockey," said Jones on Thursday night following the win over Boston. "You see when he's physical, he's moving his feet, he's creating space with his big frame and you see tonight just his explosiveness when he has the puck on the rush. He's a game-changer and we're going to need him to be that way every single game, every single shift he's on the ice if we're going to have a good chance to win. He's going against Tavares, Matthews, guys like that, some of the best centres in the league, and when he plays his game he's right up there with those guys. The main thing is just he's got to be consistent with his game and he’ll be just fine."
Dubois led the Blue Jackets with 49 points in 70 games this season while Matthews led the Leafs with 80 and Tavares recorded 60 in 63 games.
"Luc is at his best when he sees somebody across the way that he has to be better than," Jackets captain Nick Foligno told TSN back in late May when the match-up was confirmed. "He likes that. He almost gets mad. He's like a racehorse that you're holding back sometimes. He wants those minutes and I appreciate that about him. It's just him learning how to use his body still and understanding how he can dominate games."
After Thursday’s game, Jackets winger Cam Atkinson was asked about the ice conditions at Scotiabank Arena.
"It was definitely a little choppy towards the middle and end of periods, but every team is going to be facing that so you can't really let that sink into your game and use it as an excuse," he said before adding, "if anything it kind of benefits our style of play anyway."
Lines at Saturday’s Leafs practice, per team media relations:
Nylander - Matthews - Hyman
Mikheyev - Tavares - Marner
Robertson - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Clifford - Gauthier-Spezza
Johnsson - Engvall
Muzzin - Holl
Rielly - Ceci
Dermott - Barrie
Sandin - Marincin
Lines at Saturday’s Jackets practice, per team media relations:
Foligno - Wennberg - Atkinson
Texier - Dubois - Bjorkstrand
Nyquist - Jenner - Foudy
Robinson - Nash - Bemstrom
Werenski - Jones
Gavrikov - Savard
Murray - Kukan
Harrington - Nutivaara
Korpisalo / Merzlikins