TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Friday ahead of Saturday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks.
Jason Spezza and Auston Matthews led the Leafs to a convincing 7-3 win on Thursday night and came within a whisker of ending a 56-year drought. Spezza scored three goals while Matthews potted a pair against the Vancouver Canucks. The last time two Leafs recorded a hat trick in the same game? Dave Keon and Bob Pulford did it against the New York Rangers in 1965.
Matthews and Spezza were both back on the ice before practice on Friday working on their craft. Matthews was fine-tuning his shot.
“He’s passionate about it,” observed coach Sheldon Keefe. “Whether it’s off-season or in-season, he wants to get the reps … We know the dangerous weapon that he has, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for the fact that he scores in so many different ways: different types of shots, far away from the net, close to the net, rebounds, tips, he scores in all different ways and that’s probably the most impressive part.”
On Thursday night, Matthews scored in the first period by skating past J.T. Miller, who was covering for pinching defenceman Quinn Hughes, and beating Thatcher Demko five-hole off the rush.
“He’s really developed his 200-foot game and is able to create chances from his own end as you saw last game,” noted linemate Zach Hyman. “He skated it 200 feet and put it in.”
Matthews started the play behind the goal line in the Leafs zone helping his team gain possession.
“He’s such a big body,” said defenceman Zach Bogosian, “and helps out the D down low winning battles and getting that puck going north so it’s been fun to see.”
Later in the game, Matthews was in the perfect position at the side of the net to receive a no-look pass from Mitch Marner and bank a puck in off Demko.
“I just know him and Hyms are going to the net and that short-side post,” said Marner, “and a nice little chip shot by him.”
Matthews finished the night with seven shots and came close to securing his third career hat trick, but Demko stopped a one-timer from the Arizona native on the power play.
“He’s really hungry,” said goalie Frederik Andersen. “He demands the puck and he shoots with purpose every time. He has so many different kinds of shots that it’s really tough to prepare or scout him. He picks his spots and has really good vision out there.”
Matthews has now scored in his last six games, matching his longest streak during one season. He’ll look to set a new personal best on Saturday when the Leafs host the Canucks again.
“One of the things that separates him from a lot of guys is how consistent he is and how he can create chances for himself every game,” said Hyman, “so if he doesn’t score in one game he definitely has a couple looks at it.”
Matthews has been held without a shot only four times in his 292 NHL games.
“You can’t put limitations on players of his calibre,” said Keefe. “He’s got elite talent, but he’s got the elite drive to be great.”
Matthews and Marner often highlight Spezza’s work ethic, but the 18-year pro is quick to return the compliment
“The excitement and passion they have for the game rejuvenates the whole room,” Spezza said, “and when you see your top guys work like that it makes everybody want to be better.”
Spezza is always looking to get better. The 37-year-old took part in Monday’s optional practice and, per usual, was on the ice at Thursday’s optional morning skate.
“I just like to keep the engine running,” he said. “I’m a guy who goes by a lot of feel.”
Matthews and Spezza hit it off immediately because they both love talking about sticks.
“He can feel if the manufacturer made a little mistake or something,” Andersen noted of Spezza. “If there are any inconsistencies he can pick it out really quick and feel it right away. The way he prepares is meticulous. The amount of time he spends in the stick room, he lives in there.”
Only hours after producing his first hat trick since April 9, 2016, Spezza was back on the ice ahead of practice working with Toronto’s development staff.
“I was joking around with him that the skill development guys are going to be going crazy after his night last night,” said Hyman, who worked out alongside Spezza during the off-season. “He’s just such a great guy to be around. He’s such a great person. Just an overall great human being.”
“It was so much fun for me to play with him last night,” said linemate Travis Boyd, “and seeing him smiling after he got the third goal and even afterwards in the locker room, too. Somebody who does it a long time, you know, it’s easy to lose the fun in it and it turns into a job versus something you’ve grown up playing and loving to do, but every day I come in and he seems happy.”
Boyd and Nic Petan helped set up Spezza’s second goal of the night on a perfectly executed three-on-two rush.
“Offensively, all three of us just have good chemistry,” Boyd said. “We kind of see the game the same way and we all like to make plays. Being on the fourth line sometimes it’s hard to go out there and make plays because you’re sitting a little bit here and there and you obviously don’t want to turn anything over, but that doesn’t mean when the opportunity to make a play is there that you shouldn’t take it. We had a clean three-on-two and why not make a play. Why not go out and do what we did.”
Petan was making his season debut on Thursday while Boyd was playing just his third game with the Leafs. Keefe, who has tinkered with the look of the fourth line in six straight games, is going to give that trio a chance to build on the momentum created against the Canucks.
”The one thing that they did really well, aside from producing offence and scoring, they carried play, they won shifts, they changed in the offensive zone and set up the next line very well,” Keefe said. “Yesterday is a game where most things went our way, but the games are going to be more difficult and there are other areas of the game that they’ll be challenged on and that’s where we want to see their detail, the competitiveness and the physicality and all those things brought out.”
Boyd has generated four points in his three games.
“I thought I should’ve been or could be an every-day NHL player for a few years now and that opportunity didn’t work, didn’t pan out in Washington,” said Boyd, who played 24 games with Washington last season.
What was his mindset upon arriving in Toronto?
“I’ve played a decent amount of NHL games so just to believe in myself a little bit more and go out there and know I can be an every-day player and be someone who can help this team out,” Boyd said. “Being confident and trusting myself and letting myself just play hockey again instead of getting too worried about if you make a turnover … just continue to, every night, show why you should be in the lineup.”
Boyd, 27, has now played in 88 NHL games over four seasons.
Travis Dermott missed practice and the defenceman will sit out Saturday’s game after sustaining a minor injury during his first shift against the Canucks. Keefe described it as a “charley horse” in his post-game Zoom call.
KHL import Mikko Lehtonen, who has struggled to get up to speed with the North American game, will draw back into the lineup playing his fifth career NHL game on Saturday.
“Today was the best practice Mikko’s had with us in terms of the jump he had, some of the plays he made,” said Keefe. “We played a little small-area game to start practice and he made some very subtle, little plays within that that are things we’ve been really talking to him about and working at so I’m sure he’s confident coming in. He’s put in a lot of good work here over the last number of days on the development side. [Director of player development] Stephane Robidas has worked closely with him as has [assistant coach] Dave Hakstol.”
Rasmus Sandin, who hasn’t played a game since March, will continue to wait for his chance. Keefe made a point to chat with the 20-year-old on the ice after practice wrapped.
“Just letting him know Mikko is going to go tomorrow and just checking in with him, because obviously when he sees a guy go down that’s when a player might think it’s going to be his chance, but it’s not quite yet,” Keefe revealed. “I just reminded him that right now it’s Mikko’s time and we’re giving him an opportunity here to try and get some traction … Also, just reminded him that we haven’t forgotten who Rasmus is and we know what he can bring and his time will come. He just has to remain patient as we go through this.”
Spezza isn’t the only veteran making a big impact. Wayne Simmonds fought for the second time this season on Thursday while logging second-line minutes alongside John Tavares and William Nylander. Bogosian is bringing a physical presence to the back end while eating up some penalty-kill minutes.
Those two additions, along with injured forward Joe Thornton, have helped turn the Leafs room and bench into a louder place.
“We’ve had a lot more chatter on our bench from everybody,” said Keefe. “Simmonds and Bogosian have added a lot in that regard and Jumbo when he was in the lineup. But I’ve seen progression from everybody all the way through. Having multiple people that have that level of personality brings it out in others, too, whether it’s John, Auston, Mitch, even Will, guys are stepping up in that regard. Whether it’s encouraging one another or pushing each other it’s been very good and an area we needed to improve upon.”
Lines at Friday’s practice:
Hyman – Matthews – Marner
Nylander – Tavares – Simmonds
Vesey – Kerfoot – Mikheyev
Petan – Boyd – Spezza
Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Lehtonen – Bogosian
Sandin – Brooks
Injured: Dermott (charley horse), Thornton (fractured rib), Robertson (knee), Campbell (leg)
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