The Maple Leafs held an optional skate at Scotiabank Arena. The Canadiens held a full skate.
It was during the playoff series against the blue collar Columbus Blue Jackets last summer that Auston Matthews realized something.
"It was definitely a lot more physical," the 23-year-old said, "and it worked to my advantage."
And so Matthews is throwing his weight around more this season landing 4.3 hits per 60 minutes after averaging 1.2 in his first four seasons.
"I've made it a point to be more physical," the 6-foot-3 centre said. "I don't think it’s really over the top, but when I have opportunities to use my size and strength, whether it's with the puck or without the puck, [I'm] trying to utilize that to my advantage."
"He utilizes his size very well," said Canadiens centre Nick Suzuki, who stands 5-foot-11. "You got to find ways to manoeuvre around that. I get to go against some big guys on our team in practice so I'm used to that, but it definitely gives him an advantage at some points."
The Leafs have made improving defensively a big focus this season and playing more physical is a big part of that.
"In the D-zone he's pushing guys off the puck more and then transitioning to offence fast," observed linemate Zach Hyman.
"It's for the benefit of the team," said Matthews. "All that stuff wears on players throughout the game and throughout a season and throughout a playoff series, which is ultimately what we're working towards."
Matthews, of course, knows what it feels like to be targeted.
"We just got to make sure we're physical on him," said Canadiens defenceman Joel Edmundson. "I haven't really noticed the physical part [of his game], but offensively he's a great player."
Matthews has been held without a goal in only four games this season, but twice against the Canadiens.
In the season opener, Montreal defencemen Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber cross-checked Matthews in the back forcing him to get attention at the Leafs bench. Matthews was asked if he feels like opponents are zeroing in on his back.
"I'm not really sure how to answer that to be honest with you," he said. "It's a physical sport. You have the right to, obviously, compete out there and defend your net and finish checks and be physical so I haven't really noticed that too, too much. But, it's hockey, it's a fast game so lots of stuff happens. I try to go with the flow and play my game."
As Matthews becomes a more well-rounded player, his voice in the dressing room and behind the scenes is becoming louder.
"It's just a matter of him growing as a player and as a man," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "He feels a lot more comfortable in the league and amongst his teammates. He also has a great level of confidence that he's taking care of his end of things on the ice not just on the offensive side, but all the other areas. When you do that it gives you a lot more confidence to be able to speak and push your teammates and challenge them. Auston and I, we've had those discussions about him taking those steps through the offseason. We've seen that for sure and I think you can't underestimate the support that he gets from John Tavares and from Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, in particular. That really helps him feel confident to take those steps."
"Matts is a great leader," said defenceman Travis Dermott. "Whether he's on the ice putting it through guys and making guys look stupid, blocking shots and, yeah, speaking up is also a good part ... you're not going to be the most outspoken guy right off the bat so he’s coming into those shoes and all the boys love him. It's a voice you definitely respect around the room."
The Leafs allowed a season-high 35 shots against the Canadiens during Wednesday's 4-2 win, but Keefe was happy with the defensive effort. In fact, the coach revealed that, per the team's internal numbers, it was the best they've done all season in limiting scoring chances.
"The challenge here today is to recognize what has worked and stay with it," Keefe said. "It takes a lot of commitment. It takes a lot of discipline. It takes a lot of focus and energy. We've done a good job of it. It hasn't been perfect. We're still working towards getting even better in all these areas. We've seen good signs of it and it's given us a chance at success and the reality is, against this team, if you don't do it consistently then they're going to make you pay for it. They've proven that."
Limiting rush chances and defending the middle of the ice have been points of emphasis since Day 1 of training camp.
On Wednesday, Keefe especially liked how the Leafs stuck to the game plan despite falling behind early in the first period.
"We did a pretty good job taking care of the puck in the neutral zone," Matthews said. "No crazy turnovers. They feed off transition. They have a lot of speed and skill on that team so when you feed their transition and they're coming back at you and the D doesn't have good gaps it makes it difficult on the whole five-man unit. We did a good job taking care of the puck and when we could make plays in the neutral zone or their blue line we were making them and when there was nothing there we just got the puck deep and tried to grind them down low."
Dermott appreciated how the Leafs tracked back once the Canadiens got control of the puck in their own end.
"Our forwards stole the show that game," said Dermott. "We can use our speed not just as an offensive tool, but a defensive tool to get their team stopped before they can even get in our zone or even get the red [line] and put it in ... and we were pretty much on top of that last game and it will be a big part of tonight as well."
After storming out of the gates, the Canadiens are struggling to generate offence with only six goals in their last four games.
"There's little things we can do better," said Edmundson. "Coaches did a good job of breaking down film for us and showing us what we did at the start of the year that we didn't do in the past couple games. I think you're going to see a different team tonight. We have a week off after this game so nothing to save it for."
Let's try this again:#Habs Julien says Mete will draw in and Kulak will sit tonight but hasn't decided what changes at forward he might make. Incidentally, Perry was practising on the power play at morning skate, signaling a potential return to the lineup.@TSN_Edge— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) February 13, 2021
Dermott is leaning on defence partner Zach Bogosian as he looks to take the next step in his game.
"Off the ice, he's a great guy to have around, loves to have the boys giggling and relaxed, but he knows how to work hard and that's something I'm really admiring," Dermott said. "It's tough coming in as a young guy and you have so much excitement for the game that sometimes you need to get calmed down. Bogo's a perfect example of having such a love of the game and excitement but, at the same time, he knows how to work hard and really shut guys down. On the ice, if he's in the grasp of a guy in the corner then he's nine times out of 10 getting pinned up against the glass and we're getting the puck and going out and that's also a part of the game I want to get better at. So, he's a perfect example of a lot of stuff I can get better at."
Keefe likes how the 24-year-old Dermott, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason, has responded so far after an up-and-down 2019-20 campaign.
"He's done a great job in really starting to recognize what our team needs from him to succeed and what he needs to do to set himself up for consistency to be relied upon," Keefe said.
Four weeks after sustaining a knee injury during his season debut in Ottawa, winger Nick Robertson has been cleared to play and has been assigned to the American Hockey League.
"The Marlies have a practice today and then they're traveling to Manitoba tomorrow," said Keefe. "It gives him a chance to get comfortable there."
Adam Brooks and Rasmus Sandin were also loaned to the Marlies while Martin Marincin and Scott Sabourin were reassigned to the Leafs taxi squad.
Thornton, who sustained a fractured rib on Jan. 20, skated again this morning, but still hasn't been cleared to play.
"We'll get another practice opportunity tomorrow and take it from there," said Keefe.
Frederik Andersen will make his eighth straight start for the Leafs on Saturday. It will be his 12th start of the season, which is tied for second in the NHL.
"We probably would have given him more time off had [Jack] Campbell been healthy," Keefe acknowledged. "We do feel that when Fred is in a groove, it's good to keep him going."
Since Campbell injured his leg on Jan. 24 in Calgary, Andersen is 6-0-1 with a .915 save percentage.
"The games have come in quick succession, but we also had a four-day break not too long ago ... and then, it's only two days, but having two days between the last Montreal game and tonight, those kind of things are important and can go a long way to maintaining his energy levels and his workload," Keefe said. "But also, when you step back and look big picture, we know we have to find ways to get him some more time out of the net. We'll continue to monitor that."
The Leafs will play four games next week including a back-to-back set on Wednesday and Thursday against Ottawa. Michael Hutchinson, who started the season No. 4 on the depth chart before moving up after Aaron Dell was claimed off waivers and Campbell got hurt, is the current back-up.
Campbell has not practised with the team since the injury.
Projected Leafs line-up for Saturday’s game against Montreal:
Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Mikheyev
Vesey - Kerfoot - Engvall
Petan - Boyd - Spezza
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian