TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who held a practice at Ford Performance Centre on Thursday ahead of Friday night’s game against the Calgary Flames.
Toronto's four-day break between games is helping Auston Matthews turn a corner when it comes to a nagging wrist injury.
"If today's any indication, I think it's benefited him greatly," observed coach Sheldon Keefe. "He scored a lot of goals today in practice. He was filling the net so that’s a very healthy sign for him and us."
Matthews leads the National Hockey League with 21 goals in 27 games played this season. But after missing two games due to the wrist issue, the centre found the net just three times in seven games. All three goals came from in tight.
Last week, Matthews mentioned he was hoping the injury would heal more. That seems to be happening and the 23-year-old was in good spirits on Thursday.
"The days off that we've had, it's been nice to reset," Matthews said when asked about his health. "After this weekend we’ll [have] another little break and then we're really [playing] every other day from here on out. It will be nice to take advantage of this rest and recharge."
The wrist really started to bug Matthews after he was checked into the boards by Flames defenceman Rasmus Andersson on Feb. 24. The pair battled throughout that game and took coincidental minors at one point. Friday will mark the first game between the Leafs and Flames since that night.
If Matthews returns to his dominant, goal-scoring form, then the Leafs will be well positioned to turn the page on their worst slump of the season. The team has dropped five of six games and looked out of sorts during a pair of losses over the weekend to Winnipeg and Ottawa.
"We'd like to sustain a little more offensive zone time and pressure," Matthews said. "We've been talking a lot about getting to the net more and getting on the inside so that's an area we'd like to get much better at. Over the last two days we've really made that a main focus."
Keefe took advantage of the break in the schedule to put his players through an intense, hour-long practice on Thursday.
"Today was probably the longest practice we've had all season," the coach said. "We're able to get more time on the ice, we're able to be more competitive and you feel that much better about your game."
Noted Matthews with a smile, "We worked on a little bit of everything today."
"Fast-paced and tiring in a good way," added defenceman Justin Holl.
Keefe pointed out that on practice days between game days you can't really get too much done, because you want to keep the guys as fresh as possible. But the players received consecutive days off this week on Monday and Tuesday, which Keefe compared to the Christmas break in a regular season, which also falls around the 30-game mark.
Thursday's session featured plenty of five-on-five drills. There was a block of time set aside for special teams work. And, of course, there were some battle drills. The team even held a shootout.
"Yesterday was a great reset day," said winger Zach Hyman. "We did a lot of flow drills and a lot of skating. Today was more competition. We worked on special teams, a bunch of battle drills and three-on-twos and two-on-twos and things like that. It was a great preparation day for getting back into a game and getting back into that game mindset after having a little layoff."
Where do the Leafs need to improve the most?
"Our all-around game," said Holl. "I’ll give you the fluff answer, but that's really true. Everything we need to do is connected in a lot of ways."
Before the main practice started, Jason Spezza, Pierre Engvall, Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev sat on the bench going over video with assistant coach Dave Hakstol, who oversees the penalty kill. After viewing some clips, the forwards went through some drills and fine tuned the routes and stick positioning they'll need to shore things up when the Leafs are shorthanded.
"We've shown flashes of being a really good penalty kill and it gets interrupted by small mistakes," said Hyman, who averages two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game to lead all Leafs forwards. "You only have one chance to get it out and oftentimes when you don't, the other team scores. So, we're focusing on that."
The Leafs have killed off only seven of 14 penalties during this six-game skid. As a result, Toronto has sagged from 12th in the NHL (80.6 per cent) to 22nd (75.6 per cent) entering Thursday’s games.
Keefe called it "crazy" how quickly things can change. The coach likes the process the penalty kill has employed most of the season, pointing out Toronto had the top kill in the North Division prior to arriving in Vancouver on March 4.
"We definitely have to get that back on track," Keefe said. "Recognizing the importance of little details on the kill, getting a clear and getting the puck all the way down the ice when that opportunity is available and finishing right through to the very end."
A lot of the recent breakdowns occurred late in the kills after the Leafs have had their own chances at the other end. And Jake Muzzin did score the team's first shorthanded goal of the season on Saturday against the Jets.
"We're right near the top of the league in terms of least amount of time spent in our end when we are shorthanded," Keefe said. "We do a good job of keeping the puck away from our end and our net. When it is time to defend, some of our details, we have to clean that up."
Based on practice, there isn't any personnel changes coming other than Engvall taking over from Jimmy Vesey as the fifth forward in the rotation. Vesey was claimed off waivers by the Canucks on Wednesday.
The power play has also sagged during this six-game stretch, converting just once in 10 chances. The one goal came courtesy of a deflection by Matthews, who was forced to take up residence in front of the net due to the wrist injury. However, in Thursday's practice Matthews was back in his usual office on the flank.
Another familiar face rejoined the top unit at practice as Wayne Simmonds took over as the net-front presence.
"With him there it adds another element," said Matthews. "He has a lot of experience and a skill-set with tipping pucks and just really good hands in tight and can make plays in and around the net. When you add that element, it helps your power play in a number of different ways."
Simmonds is tied for third on the team in power-play goals with three.
It's not clear if Simmonds will be able to dress on Friday or Saturday. He's been out since breaking his wrist on Feb. 6.
"We don't have that answer yet," said Keefe. "We'll see how he is tomorrow. Certainly, his return is imminent and he's moving into day-to-day territory."
Simmonds sat out some power-play reps on Thursday, with Alex Galchenyuk joining the top unit.
"We have a mindset going into the power play," said Hyman, "and if we stick with our mindset I think that we have such talented players on our power play that we can adapt to what the penalty kill is doing and make plays. It's just maintaining that work ethic and maintaining our core values on the power play."
The Oilers scored three power-play goals in four chances in a win over the Flames on Wednesday. Calgary ranks 15th in the NHL in penalty killing.
Frederik Andersen worked on deflections and tipped shots with goalie coach Steve Briere prior to the main practice.
"It's nice to have a few days to just work on some fundamentals and get back to what you do well and spend more quality time working on things you don't get to work on when the schedule's a little bit tougher," the goalie said of his focus this week.
Andersen owns an ugly .900 save percentage on the season and is trending in the wrong direction. After missing four games with a lower-body injury, Andersen is 2-4-0 with an .887 save percentage since returning to the lineup.
"I know I have the ability to be a great goalie in this league and help the team win a ton of hockey games," Andersen said. "I think it's just a matter of finding that confidence again and I know that it's right there. It's just a few things I need to keep working on."
But it's not easy to find your game when you're not 100 per cent and Andersen is still bothered by the lower-body issue.
"I'm not really where I want to be," Andersen admitted. "I'm working towards getting as good as possible. I think everyone goes through a [part of the] season when you'll have something going on and it's just a matter of how well you can manage it and play through it."
Andersen participated in both practices this week and is ready to start on Friday.
"As a competitor and as a human you want to be out there and competing and helping your team win so it is tough," said Andersen when asked about playing through pain without hurting the team. "It's a very fine line."
The 31-year-old Dane played on consecutive nights last weekend. He allowed five goals on 32 shots against the Jets on Saturday. Then, after Michael Hutchinson allowed two goals on three shots in Ottawa on Sunday night, Andersen was called upon and stopped 26 of 28 shots in relief.
"He battled hard," said Keefe. "Came right in and handled that game very well for us and gave us a chance to kind of find our legs so that was a very encouraging sign."
"The tough part is staying patient,” Andersen said, "and keep working at the daily things that's going to give me success."
Andersen has now played in 22 of Toronto's 30 games this season.
Lines at Thursday's practice:
Thornton - Matthews - Marner
Galchenyuk - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Hyman
Simmonds - Engvall - Spezza
Barabanov - Boyd - Petan
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian
Marincin - Liljegren
Power-play units at Thursday's practice:
Matthews - Thornton - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Spezza
Nylander - Tavares - Matthews