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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens


What has been the most impressive part of the season Mitch Marner has put together? 

"Wow, a tough question, because there's so many things," said veteran forward Jason Spezza. "A lot of intangibles make him a great player. Hard to pinpoint one thing, but just his drive and overall energy and enthusiasm to play the game resonates through our team."

Marner celebrated his 24th birthday on Wednesday. The dynamic winger has maintained a youthful exuberance even as he gets older and enters a new stage of a career in his fifth NHL season. 

 

"He's young at heart so I don't think we want him to get too mature yet," said defenceman Justin Holl with a chuckle, "but it's nice to see him grow up in front of our eyes. He's taken on a leadership role this year and he's done it really well. He's experiencing a lot of personal success as well so I'm really happy for him. He's the engine of our team." 

Marner plays the second-most minutes on the team and most among the forwards (22:26 per game). He also leads the Leafs in scoring with 64 points, which ranks fourth in the NHL entering Wednesday's games. Marner is tied for seventh overall in even-strength goals (18).

"He continues to grow and mature and step up on and off the ice," said captain John Tavares. "The maturity is just in terms of the way his leadership continues to grow off the ice and the way he wants to set the standard and be the example to the group in so many different areas. He continues to evolve into that. He's taken the bull by the horns with our group this year."

 

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Marner's success is tied to that of his linemate and good friend Auston Matthews, who will turn 24 in September. 

"The chemistry that him and Matty have formed is second to none in the league," Spezza said. 

Matthews has potted 39 goals putting him eight clear of his closest pursuer, Edmonton's Connor McDavid, in the Rocket Richard Trophy race. 

"We don't like to talk about individual awards until they happen," Spezza said with a smile, "but we obviously know what Auston is accomplishing this year. It shows that the team's had success ... and there’s no doubt that he's been the driving force for our year. He deserves all the accolades he gets and probably more for just how special of a player he is. We want to keep him going and help him out as much as we can [down] the stretch here to keep him scoring."

Matthews has not gone more than five games without scoring this year. He has at least five goals against all six opponents he's faced. 

The numbers are gaudy. The consistency remarkable. But, in many ways, Matthews seems to be fulfilling his destiny. 

"With Auston's ability I don't think you're that surprised," said Tavares, who's in his third season with the Leafs. "I knew how great he was when I came. It's a big reason why I came ... He loves having the game on his stick and wants to be a driving force for our team and be one of the best players in the world."

Matthews has thrived despite missing four games with a wrist injury and playing through pain much of the season. During an interview with NHL.com, Matthews' father told Mike Zeisberger there were times the Leafs centre could barely hold his stick. But Matthews just kept finding different ways to produce. 

That determination was again on display on Monday night as the Canadiens did everything they could to take the Matthews shot away only to see the Arizona native work hard to get to the front of the net and deflect in a point shot. 

"He's the ultimate superstar," defenceman Morgan Rielly raved. "The way that he works, the way that he plays, you watch what he does for our team with the puck, without the puck, I mean, he's a special player. We're a bit spoiled. We're just used to seeing it, but he's certainly been putting it on display lately and we're just very proud of him."

Matthews has scored 18 goals in the last 18 games. 

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Nick Foligno has played on a line with Matthews and Marner since being acquired in a trade from Columbus, but the 33-year-old left Monday's game in the second period due to an upper-body injury. He'll miss Thursday's rematch against Montreal and is doubtful for Saturday's series finale. 

Foligno has dressed in five games for the Leafs so far and had hoped to build more chemistry with his new teammates down the stretch. 

"In terms of his own game and how he's feeling with our team and adjusting, I think he's already passed that point," insisted coach Sheldon Keefe. "I think we're in a good place there. He's very comfortable. His teammates are comfortable with him. Obviously, I was looking to move things around and try him in some different spots in the lineup and that's something that, with him missing time this week, that's going to impact my ability to do that."

Joe Thornton, who has registered a point in six straight games, skated alongside Matthews and Marner at practice. 

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Sidelined since March 19 due to a knee injury, Frederik Andersen is finally ready to return to game action.  

"Today was an important day for him as [it was] his second full practice," said Keefe. "All indications are that it went well and he's feeling good. So, with that being the case, the plan is for him to go on a conditioning loan to the Marlies and he will play half a game tomorrow. That's a good way to get him back into it and then things will be re-assessed from there."

The Marlies host the Manitoba Moose at 3 pm ET on Thursday. You can watch the game on TSN2. It will be Andersen's first American Hockey League appearance since the 2013-14 season. 

And while Andersen shakes off the rust, Jack Campbell is looking to shake off his fourth loss of the season.

"We played well enough to win the game and then it comes down to a kind of fluky goal to tie it up and send it in to overtime," Campbell said. "That's something that I work on a lot and for it to go in at that point, I'm not going to overthink it, but obviously would have been nice to get out of there after 60 with the win. I thought the guys played hard and we definitely could have won the game." 

Campbell is adapting to an increased workload and trying to do a better job of riding the ups and downs over the course of the season.

"We're just going to bounce back and play really hard next game," the 29-year-old promised.

Campbell and goalie coach Steve Briere worked on sealing the post before practice started on Wednesday mimicking the play that led to the Phillip Danault equalizer in Montreal. 

Despite Monday's setback, Campbell is still 15-2-2 with a .925 save percentage this season. 

"What he's been able to do is incredible and he deserves all the confidence in the world," said Rielly. "To watch him do his thing and have fun and play and win, I mean, that's what team sports are all about."


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With the Leafs power play struggling, Rasmus Sandin was promoted to the top unit during Monday's game and remained with Matthews, Marner, Tavares and William Nylander at Wednesday's practice.

"As he gets more experience and gets more comfortable being in that role with our team, and I think in the NHL in general, he'll only get better and better," said Tavares. "You've seen that in the rest of the game, the more he plays the better he gets ... He has so much upside offensively and a lot of that goes to his instincts and his ability to deliver the puck really, really well whether that's to the net or the open man."

There's a lot of talent on that top unit, but Sandin simply shrugged when asked what he needs to do to have success. 

"The stuff I've always done," the 21-year-old said. "The things I did down with the Marlies. The things I did when I got the chance to play with the second unit and just try to play the way I always have, move the puck well and try to be a duel threat on top. Those kind of things got me to this point."

The Leafs have converted on just five of 65 power-play chances in 28 games since March 4 and that 7.7 per cent conversation rate ranks last in the NHL in that stretch. 

A Sandin turnover led to a shorthanded chance for the Canadiens on Monday as the Leafs went 0-for-3 on the power play, but Keefe didn't mind how the Swede handled things, in general. 

"He looked comfortable, moved the puck well, moved it with poise," Keefe said. "Obviously, our power play wasn't nearly good enough. We need to get a goal. We get a goal on the power play then the game is well in hand and we failed to do that. It would be hard to say that anybody was very good on the power play."

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After taking a puck to the face on Saturday night, Holl missed Monday's game. The defenceman returned to practice on Wednesday wearing a full shield and skating in his usual spot beside Jake Muzzin

"I'm actually feeling really good," Holl said. "It was more of a preventative deal the other day, sitting out of the game, but it was probably the smart thing to do and just let it heal a little bit. I feel good. I find myself in the bubble at least once a year so it's pretty familiar."

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Before practice formally started, the Leafs gathered at the white board and welcomed Riley Nash with some stick taps. The centre, currently sidelined with a knee sprain, skated with his new teammates for the first time since being acquired from Columbus ahead of the trade deadline. 

 

 

Zach Hyman also skated with the team for the first time since sustaining an MCL sprain on April 18. Both Hyman and Nash wore red no-contact sweaters and aren't expected to play this week. 

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Lines at Wednesday’s practice: 

 

Thornton - Matthews - Marner

Galchenyuk - Tavares - Nylander

Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Noesen

Engvall - Spezza - Simmonds

Hyman, Nash, Brooks

 

Rielly - Brodie 

Muzzin - Holl

Sandin - Dermott

Hutton - Liljegren 


Campbell

Andersen 

 

Power-play units at Wednesday's practice: 

 

Sandin 

Matthews - Tavares - Marner 

Nylander 

 

Rielly 

Kerfoot - Thornton - Spezza 

Simmonds 

 

Lines in 5-on-6 drills at Wednesday's practice: 

 

Muzzin - Holl 

Kerfoot - Matthews - Marner 

 

Rielly - Brodie 

Mikheyev - Tavares - Nylander