The Toronto Maple Leafs held an optional skate at the Bell Centre on Wednesday.
The Leafs and Canadiens have held the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds in the North Division since Feb. 19. The forever rivals are on a collision course to meet in the playoffs for the first time in what seems like forever.
"That will be pretty special if that's the case," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "But, that being said, we got to prepare for any possible matchup."
The Original Six clubs haven’t met in the postseason since 1979.
"Trying to focus one game at a time," said winger Alex Galchenyuk, "but you always have those thoughts in the back of your mind that it could happen."
Both teams have a chance to send a message before a potential playoff showdown as the Leafs and Canadiens will meet four times over the next 11 days.
"They're very important [games]," said Rielly. "We did a good job when we played those two games against the Jets and we have some areas of our game that we’re proud of that we want to build on. We want to make sure we're keeping focus on the process and we’re playing the right way and playing these guys a bunch is a good opportunity to put that to the test. I think we'll be ready for it."
"I'm sure it's going to be playoff hockey," said centre Auston Matthews. "It's going to be tight, not a lot of room out there. You're going to have to earn your chances and stay patient all night."
Toronto has won four of six meetings with Montreal this season, including two of three at the Bell Centre.
"The games have been quite close," coach Sheldon Keefe cautioned. "They've had their way with us at different times, too. Each game is its own animal. We just have to make sure we're ready from the start today. We weren't the last time we were in this building."
The Leafs fell behind 2-0 and ultimately lost 4-2 on April 12 in Montreal only hours after general manager Kyle Dubas offered the group a big vote of confidence at the trade deadline. Jack Campbell suffered his first loss of the season that night, ending a record-setting run. He'll be back between the pipes tonight.
Keefe isn't expected to make any changes to a lineup that played with a lot of emotion during a pair of wins in Winnipeg last week. The physical element will be important against the Canadiens, who sit second in hits this season.
"We talked about competitiveness from day one," said captain John Tavares. "I know Sheldon has made that a big focus ... just how establishing physicality and competitiveness has got to be a big part of who we are and the way we want to play."
"There's been growth," said Rielly. "Part of that is new players coming in that play a certain style and just the group playing to our structure. That's an area that we talked about a lot in the off-season and, as the year has gone on, that's an area of our game we want to build on and grow into."
While the Leafs played well as a group in sweeping a pair of games in Winnipeg, Galchenyuk didn't like his game.
"I could've definitely [brought] more and done better," he admitted.
But the former Hab didn't want to go into detail.
"It's not like I'm going to sit here and overthink that I have to do this better or this better," he said. "I know I can bring more and play better than I did the last few games, so that's where my mindset is."
After practice ends, Alex Galchenyuk putting in some extra work before the flight to Montreal pic.twitter.com/JCpxSIdsuB— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) April 27, 2021
Despite playing almost exclusively in the top six since breaking into the lineup 18 games ago, Galchenyuk has just two goals and five assists with the Leafs. He's been playing on a line with Tavares and William Nylander of late.
"Just a little more [focus] with his details defensively," Keefe said when asked where Galchenyuk can improve. "I'm not overly concerned about anything offensively. John and Will have done a really good job of finding ways to produce consistently. Alex, on that line, he's got to do a lot of the work. He's got to really skate both ways, forecheck and be really responsible defensively."
Keefe had a lengthy chat with Galchenyuk at the end of Tuesday's practice.
"He hasn't played poorly by any means," Keefe stressed. "He was playing at such a high level for a really good stretch of time and that's a difficult thing to maintain. Most players come down from that, if not all players a little bit. We want to just make sure that he's focused and continues to know that we believe in him, but that we're looking to see him trying to get back to that level he was at."
Galchenyuk has been a minus player in five straight games.
The Leafs penalty kill ranks 26th in the NHL this season at 76.6 per cent, which is down from 77.7 per cent last season when the team ranked 21st.
Those numbers, however, are misleading, according to the coach.
"To be honest, I haven't been concerned about the PK all season," Keefe said. "I know the percentages haven't been great, but I think it reflects strongly upon our goaltending and how that's gone. When our goalies have been really solid and consistent, our penalty killing has been great, and when our goaltending hasn't been, I think it's faltered a little bit. So that's part of it for sure."
In short-handed situations, Frederik Andersen owns an ugly .882 save percentage, which down from .911 last season. Jack Campbell has been even worse at .833, which is down from .875 last season. Overall, Toronto's short-handed save percentage ranks 28th in the NHL this season, which is down from 22nd last season, per NaturalStatTrick.
"The process of our penalty kill and how it's gone in limiting shots and chances against on the kill, I think it's been quite strong all season for us and something that's a pretty solid foundation for it," Keefe said. "If we stay with that we think the percentages will equal out."
The addition of Nick Foligno will also help the group and Keefe confirmed that element was something the organization targeted ahead of the trade deadline.
"He's done that throughout his career and takes a lot of pride in it," Keefe noted. "With [Zach] Hyman out we've given him even more opportunity."
The Marlies returned to practice on Wednesday for the first time since being shut down due to COVID protocols on April 14.
"You could see the smiles underneath everybody's masks," said head coach Greg Moore. "Once we got into practice, you could tell the guys were having fun. Just really thankful we get to do what we love again."
"It just makes you appreciate how lucky you are to be able to play hockey," said forward Kenny Agostino. "A lot of excitement today. Guys were excited to be out of their places for a bit."
The Marlies have 13 games scheduled over a 20-day stretch starting on Saturday.
Projected Leafs lineup based on Tuesday's practice:
Foligno - Matthews - Marner
Galchenyuk - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Simmonds
Thornton - Brooks - Spezza
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Dermot