Six points clear of the Tampa Bay Lightning and with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are closing in on clinching the Atlantic Division’s second playoff seed.
That means these final six games are mostly about preparing (resting, on-ice tuning, scouting) for Round 1, Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Auston Matthews missed Sunday’s game against the Islanders with what head coach Sheldon Keefe called “a minor injury” and, notably, the game was also Toronto’s second in two days. No sense pushing anything at this point, even for a player chasing 60 goals and wrapping up one of the best goal-scoring seasons we’ve seen this generation.
“When you’re making these kinds of decisions with individual players such as Auston, who seems to be setting new milestones by the week…you keep that in mind,” Keefe told The Real Kyper and Bourne about balancing individual season accomplishments with making cautious, responsible choices so close to the playoffs. “I think as a team collectively we know what the big picture is here and what we’re striving for.
“As it relates to (Sunday) night there really wasn’t much of a decision to be made (on Matthews). I think Auston and ourselves acknowledge this is certainly not the time of year or situation for Auston, or any player for that matter, to be playing at less than 100 per cent. We’ll balance all that the rest of the way here and not just for Auston.”
Take, for instance, Jack Campbell. The No. 1 goalie who so much of the team’s hopes rely on, has played six games since returning from a rib injury, posting five wins and an .896 save percentage in that time. He’s not stealing games and he’s not saving goals at the rate he was earlier in the year anymore, but has been just fine behind the Leafs’ dangerous offence.
Getting the best version of Campbell is of great importance, and Keefe noted they will strike a balance in his workload down the stretch.
“We’ll take it a day at a time, making sure each day that Jack is feeling good both in body and mind. At this point he definitely is,” Keefe said.
In Round 1 Toronto is going to either line up against Boston or Tampa Bay, and the fact is there will be no “good” matchup here. With each day it appears the Leafs’ first-round opponent is most likely to be Tampa Bay, a four-line, deep-defence, elite-goalie juggernaut that’s won the past two Stanley Cups.
In that environment, Keefe acknowledged it will be important to remain flexible in how he deploys his lineup. And, in fact, this Leafs team may be better suited to change up their look on the fly — and for it to work — than in years past.
Where Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are pretty much joined at the hip as a duo when healthy, William Nylander and John Tavares have been less so at times this season. When Matthews sat on Sunday, Tavares played with Marner and Ilya Mikheyev, and Nylander went with Alex Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall.
So will Nylander and Tavares be a default combo in the playoffs, or will Toronto throw a different look at its first-round opponent? It might depend on the situation.
“I certainly see a scenario where that is the case,” Keefe said to Bourne and Kypreos. “What we’ve done here in the last little bit is we’ve had them separated, but at different times in the game, I’m moving Will around and did change the lines on Saturday night in Ottawa. We put John and Will back together and as a result, we had Mikheyev, Kampf and Engvall together. I just thought we could change something at that point in time that might help us in the game and I liked that effect it had. I see a potential for both things to happen. We’ve tried enough different things here and we’ve seen things that work. We’ve also seen things we don’t like and I think there’s great value in that.
“Depending on home, away, what’s happening in the games, what the other team’s lines are looking like, we can do various things with our group,” Keefe continued. “That makes me excited as a coach.”
This changing look includes the blue line, which has been forced into trying things due to injury.
At the trade deadline, when the team acquired Mark Giordano, it seemed an opportunity for an easy assimilation to slide him back alongside T.J. Brodie, since the two were regular partners in Calgary. For various reasons, that pair hasn’t formed yet.
And still, since acquiring Giordano, the Leafs have the NHL’s sixth-lowest shots against per 60 rate at 5-on-5, third-lowest high danger chances against per 60, and fourth-lowest expected goals against rate. Giordano has chipped in two goals and nine points in 14 games for good measure.
But don’t think Keefe and the Leafs aren’t still thinking about that pairing. It’s something the coach can confidently turn to when the situation calls for it.
“When acquiring Gio when I talked to him it was something I mentioned we’d look to go to,” Keefe told Kyper and Bourne. “As it turned out, Muzzin hasn’t been playing very much with our group and as a result, Brodie’s been playing the left side… When Brodie did go back to the right side, we wanted to get a look at some different things like Muzzin-Brodie.
“We do remain confident in those guys with great experience together, if needed we could put them together at any point in time. You may see it down the last six games here, but even if we had to put them together without any real refresher on it, I’m confident those guys can adjust just fine.”
So as much as we’ll hear about Matthews chasing 60 goals, Marner chasing 100 points, or the Maple Leafs team extending franchise records in the final two weeks, this last stretch of games will, more importantly, be about managing and preparing for Tampa or Boston in just a couple of weeks.
Then, and only then, will this team really be measured.