Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after practice on Wednesday, discussing the team’s play in third periods, Rasmus Sandin’s first game back with the big club, the injury status of Trevor Moore and Jake Muzzin, and Auston Matthews’ two-way game.
You never sweat two points. That said, if you look at the games coming out New Year’s Eve and four out of the next five, you didn’t give up a single goal in those third periods. What did you like about those games that must be repeated and can be repeated going forward?
Keefe: I liked a lot about our third period yesterday. In the first 12 minutes or so, I thought we were in control of things very well and had the puck a lot, which is really what we’ve liked to do. We don’t want to be in defensive mode with that type of lead. We want to control the play and not give the other team much opportunity. I thought we did a really good job of that if you go back and look at it, but it was just at the eight-minute mark that things started to slide a little bit there. It is just another reminder for us that we’ve got a ways to go in that regard. We’ve got to finish the job. But there are a lot of positives to pull out of it this morning.
You’ve said that good teams don’t let injuries faze them. Do you feel that this team is not getting fazed by its injuries?
Keefe: It’s more my point that we’d like to move into a phase where we are considered an elite team. Part of that is the injuries and adversity — whatever it is — don’t bother you. You just press on and find other ways to win. Everybody plays a little bit more and plays a little bit better. That is really what it is about. I think we have done that.
With Muzzin out, I thought the guys responded very well. Even before that, with Johnsson and Mikheyev and Trevor Moore, and earlier in the season, Hyman and Marner and John were out. You want to be able to rally around those types of things. It is a good opportunity for us to do so.
As you saw, a guy like Sandin comes in and gets to play a great hockey game. He gets a little more experience and we still find a way to win the game. There are a lot of good things that can come from that.
What are the chances Timothy Liljegren could get into a game this week?
Keefe: He is not going to get in tomorrow. It’s not something we have talked about here. We like the six guys that we have and have been playing. I thought Lily had a great practice today. That is really what he is here for — to get on the ice and get experience with our guys, so that when his opportunity does come, he is all the more prepared for it.
What is the biggest challenge when you are going up against a player like Matthews Tkachuk, who can mix the skill with the other side — the agitating?
Keefe: It is just being aware of the fact that he is competitive and is going to come hard on every puck and those types of things, but also not to let things go off the rails and become a sideshow. I think that is part of it. He looks to kind of change the focus that you might have in the game. That is not what we want to be about. We want to just focus on what we have to do.
Confidence is a word that is often associated with Rasmus Sandin. Did you see that with him from day one with the Marlies? How can he continue to translate that to his game here?
Keefe: I did see that. I talked about it a bit last night. He didn’t start the season with us initially because he was injured with the Marlies. We didn’t get off to a great start, and then he came in and transformed our power play and really helped our team. That is at 18 years old playing his first games of pro hockey.
I think it is more of the same here. I think he is just comfortable and plays hockey and does what he does best. He is going to have ups and downs like all players do. We are going to help him push through all of that kind of stuff. Right now, he is going to get a great opportunity. Yesterday, he did good on it.
Mitch Marner was saying you have a knack for knowing when guys are in a rhythm and when to play him more in that situation. How much is it a fluid situation on the bench knowing when a guy is in the groove and leaning on him more a little bit?
Keefe: I think that is a big part of my job when it comes to bench management in the game. I think a lot of the coaching and direction and all of that kind of stuff is on practice days and pre-game. You are preparing your team to play. Once the puck drops, the players have got to go out and decide how things go. I think it is more about managing the bench and figuring out who is going and who is not — what is working and what is not. A lot of this strategy type of stuff is kind of over at that stage. That is what it is about for me. That is the exciting part of it. I rely on our staff to give me some of the cues and things they are seeing as well.
Pierre Engvall has made the most of his opportunities here. How hard did he work with the Marlies to be prepared for this shot when he got it?
Keefe: He worked really hard, but he also just kind of trusted what we were doing with him and the situations we were putting him in — a lot of the defensive spots, which he wasn’t comfortable with early because he, like a lot of players who are good offensively and have done that most of their life, wants to be in that situation right to begin with. We kind of worked the other way and put him in spots to check and play against good players and learn how to penalty kill. We kept him off of the first-unit power play for most of the time and gave him minutes in other spots and made him really earn it and develop a foundation as a player. He has taken advantage of that here now.
He has just established himself as able to play in the league, clearly, and now it is about finding consistency in how we can use him. While he did some good things yesterday, I think he is showing that there are times in his game where he needs to continue to develop and continue to push. As we get healthy and get people back, he has got to continue to play at a high level.
Are you hoping to get Jake Muzzin back on the other side of the break?
Keefe: That is what we have talked about being a potential target for us. How things go between now and then will dictate that. My understanding is that he is going to stick around and get working over the break. We will just have to see where he is at then.
Has Justin Holl grown as a leader in your time here?
Keefe: Hollsy is just himself always, and I think that is where his leadership comes in. He just brings energy and positivity and passion every day. He is a very popular guy and a very likeable person. He has maintained that. Even when he started with the Marlies, he was a seventh or eighth defenseman there and worked his way up. Here, he has gone through the same type of road and he hasn’t changed throughout that. I think that is the coolest part about him.
Do you like the sound that playing music in practice replicates in terms of playing in a loud rink, or is it more the tempo that you get out of it?
Keefe: For me, it is more the tempo and the energy. Especially on days like this, you’re coming back from a game and it can be a little bit tough to put your gear back on and go out and get your work in. It is just raising the energy level not unlike what you would do in the gym.
Part of it, though, is that we don’t play in quiet environments. Even though the music doesn’t play, there are still a lot of different times where it is loud — be it during the play, or stoppages, or TV timeouts and the crowd really gets going and the music is going. We’ve got to learn to communicate within that. That’s all a part of it.
With the offensive swagger this team has, what has been the challenge with teaching the finer points you want to teach?
Keefe: That has been the greatest challenge. We have made a lot of strides offensively, as you’ve said. I think that puts our team in a better spot, which there is benefits defensively just from that because of how much more we’ve had the puck. We’ve spent a lot more time in the offensive zone, and that has really helped. As we have seen with some of our plays recently, breaking some of the habits defensively… As we’ve gone through it, it’s not just a product of how we are playing now. Some of these things have been an issue for quite some time with some of our players. We’ve got to find a way to break that.
That’s our biggest challenge. We actually had a meeting about that type of stuff this morning with our leadership group — kind of taking that next step as a team.
How did that meeting go?
Keefe: It went great. The players were really good. I think we all recognize what we need to do and what the biggest area for growth is.
Is Trevor Moore ready to play?
Keefe: I haven’t gotten word on how it went today for him and what his status is going to be. Today, as you saw, he was full contact for the first time. Obviously, he is very close.
Is there anything about watching Auston Matthews every day that has surprised you? What is the biggest thing that has stood out so far?
Keefe: I think the biggest surprise or the biggest thing I’ve learned with him is just that he is a very good player defensively away from the puck when he is engaged with the way he can track. You saw the one goal in the Winnipeg game that he got, but we’ve got dozens of clips of him doing similar things. Some of the best defensive-zone coverage clips we showed today to the players he was out there doing a job. He has got great ability to do that.
The offensive piece — we know that and we’ve seen that. The whole world has seen that. He wants to do really well. He wants the team to do really well. He wants to be a part of something great here.