Columnist image
Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

|Archive

The Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre on Sunday. 


Zach Hyman is expected to play on Thursday when the Leafs open their playoff series against the Canadiens​. 

"We haven't gotten the final clearance for him medically, but I certainly believe we are trending that way," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "Another great practice for him today."

Hyman skated on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. The gritty winger hasn't suited up in a game since April 18 when a knee-on-knee hit by Canucks defenceman Alex Edler left him with an MCL sprain. Hyman has now taken part in three practices since being cleared for contact and isn't feeling much rust. ​

"I don't think I've been off too long," Hyman said. "I've been skating and trying to stay in game shape so I'm just excited. The playoffs are a whole new level so just to get back into that game, I'll be into it right from the first shift and ready to get going."

Keefe suggested the injury layoff may actually help. 

"You never like to play without Zach Hyman in your lineup, but I did look at it as positive that a guy who gives so much to every shift and every rep he gets — whether it is a practice or a game — [got] time to recover and be fresh for playoffs," the coach said. "I certainly think we are going to see a very prepared Zach Hyman."

Prior to the injury, Hyman was having a career year with 15 goals and 18 assists in 43 games. 

---

After the stacked top unit stumbled badly late in the regular season, the Leafs will go back to a more balanced approach on the power play. 

"It's something we probably would have gone to a little earlier had Hyman been available to us," Keefe explained. "That is something we went to at the start of training camp and the season. We had a lot of success with it. In a lot of ways, we are looking at this as a new season and a new opportunity to start fresh again. We are going to go with that."

Matthews, Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander were a formidable quartet last season on the power play, but new assistant coach Manny Malhotra​ split up the core four to start this season. The two-headed monster approach worked well at first and Toronto owned the second best conversion rate in the NHL through March 3. 

Ahead of Sunday's practice, the team reviewed video of the positive early-season plays. What stood out?  

"Just moving the puck quicker, getting more shots, just playing with a lot of confidence," defenceman Morgan Rielly observed. "Here in this playoff run, it's like a new season for us and a clean slate so we're going to start well and start moving the puck, start shooting and hopefully start capitalizing."

Here's how the units looked at practice: 

Rasmus Sandin
Matthews - Joe Thornton - Marner 
Hyman 

Rielly 
Jason Spezza - Tavares - Nylander 
Wayne Simmonds 

It was in early March that things started going south for the power play. In the final 32 games of the season, the Leafs converted on just six of 78 chances while allowing five shorthanded goals. In an attempt to get back on track, Toronto used the old stacked unit down the stretch.  

"We haven't seen the last of the look we have been using with the four guys together," Keefe said. "Not unlike what we did at the start of the season, we had two balanced units and yet, within each game, we also used that group as well. We just want to give ourselves increased options as we go into a playoff series where there is going to be a lot of back-and-forth happening."

Sandin, who missed the final three games of the regular season due to the team's tight salary cap situation, may help change the dynamic on the Matthews-Marner unit. 

What makes Sandin an effective power-play quarterback? 

"A lot of it is poise to not panic under pressure in tight spaces, awareness, and the fact that his head is always up which allows him to make better decisions in terms of when to move the puck, where to move the puck, and when it’s time to shoot it," Keefe said. "He has a great confidence about him. As a young player, he has the confidence to make the proper decision at the appropriate time."

The 21-year-old Sandin was with the Leafs in the bubble last summer, but didn't play in the series against Columbus. He will be making his Stanley Cup playoff debut on Thursday. 

---

Like on Tuesday (practice) and Friday (game-day skate), Riley Nash skated on a line with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev. The 32-year-old centre will make his Leafs debut in Game 1 against the Canadiens. 

"We are going to get him involved right away and just rely on the fact that he is a very smart player, a very experienced guy — in the NHL and in the playoffs, in particular — and trust that he is going to fit right in," Keefe explained. 

Acquired from Columbus ahead of the trade deadline, Nash has been sidelined with a knee sprain since April 4. 

"The fact that our regular season got pushed back a little bit — and thus the playoffs got pushed back a little bit — has helped his cause in terms of being ready and available at the start here," Keefe pointed out. 

Nash has been on the team that has eliminated the Leafs in two of the last three seasons. 

"He's definitely a player that we're familiar playing against and he did a really good job against us in years past," said Hyman. "We all know how strong defensively he is and how much he's relied on." 

"It gives us options," said Keefe. "I really like that, especially in the defensive zone with those responsibilities, and with penalty killing. With the experience that he has and the skill set that he has with his ability to be really responsible and consistent defensively, I think it brings a different look and a different option within our bottom six. I really like that."

Nash partnered with Nick Foligno, his teammate in Columbus, on the penalty kill during special teams work. 

---

Right-shot defenceman Zach Bogosian returned to practice in a red no-contact sweater on Sunday skating with teammates for the first time since suffering a shoulder injury on April 20. 

"It is a very good sign," said Keefe. "I haven't gotten the report of how it all went medically from their side, but just from what I saw, he looked good and was doing a lot. He was eager to be out there with the team today. That is a good sign. He will just continue to progress. We certainly think he will be an option in this series."

Bogosian is one of only two players on the Leafs roster with a Stanley Cup ring with the other being defenceman Jake Muzzin. So, his mere presence on the ice and in the room is expected to benefit the group. 

"You look at guys who have experienced winning the Cup, whether that be Bogo or Muzz, and how special that is and just the way their face lights up when they talk about it," said Rielly, "as a player you want that experience. As a person, that's what you chase your whole life."

---

Thornton (1,680 GP) is hoping to become the third NHL player to win his first championship after skating in 1,500 or more regular-season games. The only two to do it so far are Ray Bourque (1,612 GP) and Dave Andreychuk (1,597 GP).

Upon signing in Toronto, Thornton said he made the move from San Jose because he needed to win a Stanley Cup. 

"Everybody should have that chance," the 41-year-old said. “We have a chance right now so that’s all you want ... We’ve been very consistent all year long. We’re an extremely deep team. This is a hungry team and we're really look forward what comes ahead." 

No one looked hungrier down the stretch than Thornton, who is gearing up for his 18th post-season campaign in the NHL. He's suited up in 179 playoff games since breaking into the league in 1997. 

"One of the best of his generation so as his teammate you just want to support him," said Rielly. "He's a guy who's had his chances and ... a great career and just wants to cap it off. A lot easier said than done, but we got a lot of guys who are going to work hard for him and each other and we're going to go on a push here."  

The Leafs' roster actually includes two of the 12 active NHL players, who have played 1,000 or more career regular-season games without winning a Stanley Cup. Jason Spezza (1,177 GP) is also on that list. 

"They are guys who have given so much to the game," said Keefe. "It is not lost on the group for sure, but it is an unspoken thing. That is what you play for, right? The opportunity to give everybody that moment with the Stanley Cup. It is such a special thing and such a difficult thing to achieve. You are playing not just for yourself, but the right to give those experiences and memories to your teammates, your family and your friends. It is bigger than just yourself."

---

Keefe officially named Jack Campbell the Game 1 starter. The 29-year-old earned the chance by going 17-3-2 with a .921 save percentage in a breakthrough regular season. 

"Really, just the results he has gotten for us both in wins and saves, the confidence he has built for himself and in turn the confidence our team has in him," Keefe said in explaining the decision. "He has done a terrific job. That is his part of it."

Campbell will be making his Stanley Cup playoff debut, but doesn't expect any stage fright. 

"If anything it will just be even more exciting," he said after Friday's game in Winnipeg. "I already enjoy playing the game as it is. It's just so fun to play in the NHL and the next step is the playoffs so ... I'll be ready to go and just embracing the opportunity."

Due to a nagging knee injury, Frederik Andersen has only played one NHL game since March 19. He stopped 24 of 28 shots in his return to the Leafs crease on Wednesday in Ottawa. 

"The other part of it is just the circumstances surrounding Fred," Keefe noted. "He hasn't played. In that time, Jack has played extremely well. He is definitely deserving of the opportunity to be in Game 1."

Andersen has started all 25 of Toronto's playoff games over the last four seasons. 

"Obviously, it is a tough decision that we had to make here," Keefe said. "With Frederik, he has been a big part of our team and has been the guy in the playoffs. The circumstances around him make it a tough decision as it relates to Fred, but obviously, it’s not an overly difficult decision as it relates to Jack and the effort he has put in."

---

Sunday's workout was the first of three full practices the team will hold before Game 1 against Montreal. 

"Offensive pace was the focus today," said defenceman Justin Holl. "Just trying to work on our quick strikes and getting pucks to the net. That was the main emphasis." 

The Leafs will hold another full skate on Monday and Wednesday while Tuesday is scheduled to be a day off. 

---

Lines at Sunday's practice: 

Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Foligno - Tavares - Nylander 
Kerfoot - Nash - Mikheyev 
Thornton - Spezza - Simmonds 
Galchenyuk, Engvall, Brooks 

Rielly - Brodie 
Muzzin - Holl 
Sandin - Dermott 
Hollowell, Bogosian 

Campbell 
Andersen
Rittich