After practice on Saturday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the start of meaningful games tomorrow with Game 1 vs. Columbus, Andreas Johnsson practicing with the main group, Frederik Andersen’s form heading into the playoffs, and rookie forward Nick Robertson officially making the Game 1 lineup.
August 1 @MapleLeafs practice lines & defensive pairings:
Nylander – Matthews – Hyman
Mikheyev – Tavares – Marner
Robertson – Kerfoot – Kapanen
Clifford – Gauthier-Spezza
— Leafs PR (@LeafsPR) August 1, 2020
Andreas Johnsson was practicing with the main group today. Has the timeline for his return advanced at all in the last few weeks?
Keefe: I think it is just part of the process here. This actually wasn’t his first practice with us. He practiced the other day with us as well. We are just working him and getting him back with the main group. With the fact that the ice time that we have here currently, there isn’t a great deal of time after our practice and our goalie sessions. We are just trying to get him a greater workload. He is getting a lot closer to returning, so we want to make sure he is getting an appropriate level of work.
Goaltending is so important at this time of year. Where is Frederik Andersen’s game at in your mind? How much is it you talking to him before a game, or do you lean on Steve Briere at this point?
Keefe: I think he is looking good and he feels good. He is calm. He is very much focused and prepared. Definitely, the bulk of the work has been with Steve Briere. Steve has worked with him very closely here all the way back to the tail-end of Phase 2 when Fred came into town. They have made great progress. Both Fred and Jake Campbell put in a lot of work to get themselves ready. We are feeling real good with where Fred is at.
The players were talking about the importance of the defensive mindset and the importance of the defensive game. Where do you really see that message sinking in with them as you get ready to play a good defensive team in Columbus?
Keefe: I think just in the effort that our players have put forth here right from day one of camp. It has been a major focus for us. As we are playing a very meaningful game tomorrow and the stakes being high right out of the gate after only one exhibition game, that is what we are really excited to see us put into action.
There is a lot of detail and structure that we have gone through. Really, what we are just looking for is the mindset — putting in the effort and prioritizing it as an important thing we need to have to be able to give ourselves a chance to win. That is really where our focus has been.
I am fully expecting our players are going to perform in that manner. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of who we are as a team. We need to be really good offensively here. We are, as you mentioned, playing against a team that makes it really hard on you defensively. If we are not sharp and don’t have a good plan offensively, it is going to be tough for us. We can be as good as we want offensively, but if we don’t find ways to score, it is going to be tough to win.
We saw a lot of social justice messaging from the players today, including a really powerful speech from Matt Dumba. How involved are you with what direction the Maple Leafs take in terms of those sorts of things, and what the players are saying and want to say in terms of social justice issues?
Keefe: I have been involved. We have had some discussions — Brendan, myself, Kyle Dubas — and discussions with our players as well. You have seen our players do their part in terms of making a statement with the T-shirts and showing their support in that way.
The platform that we have here now in this situation… You saw it with Matt Dumba’s speech today, which I thought was terrific and so well done at such a difficult time and in such a big moment. To be able to articulate a message like that, I think, is really good. I think it is important for us to continue to use our platform to show our support and the appropriate awareness and all of those things.
Ultimately, though, it is going to fall on all of us here. Once we get through this event and through this COVD-19 situation and we get back into our communities, we really [need] to follow this up with action toward making real progress.
Have you seen anything in the last couple of days in particular that has told you the guys are ready? Any signs at practice?
Keefe: Our group has been really focused, in particular as we have gotten into the bubble. You focus a little bit more on your opponent and the fact that the games are coming. We have seen an enhanced level of focus and effort that way. That has been very positive for us.
We are just excited to play meaningful games here now. It has been a long road. You look at the pause and you look at Phase 2 and Phase 3 and now just this long week being here and preparing for this… Our guys are excited to play games.
The night before your first NHL Stanley Cup playoff game, how are you feeling personally heading into the game? Do you have a routine you follow before a big game like this?
Keefe: I certainly have a routine that I follow for every game, whether it is the regular season, exhibition, or playoff, no matter what league I am in. I recognize how important the game is and what is at stake and what we are trying to accomplish here and the challenge that we have in front of us.
In terms of my approach, it is just like any other game. I think that is the message we have for our players: We recognize what the challenge is and what is at stake, but we can’t overthink this. We have to get out there and clear our heads and just perform.
What in Nick Robertson’s game has led you to believe he can make an impact for you starting tomorrow night?
Keefe: What we have said all along with him is what we are dealing with here. He is a guy who has got a great skill set. If he gets an opportunity, he can make a difference offensively. The big thing that we have seen is the way he has been able to work — his work habits and the way that he skates and the way that he is on the puck.
I talked to him today and told him the Montreal game we played in exhibition was a good step for him and he got some good experience, but it was just reminding him that it is going to be a lot harder starting tomorrow. He has got to be prepared for that. We are anxious to see how he can handle it. We believe he is prepared and ready for it. That is why we are confident in putting him in.
All the way through camp, there has been a lot of attention on Nick — and for good reason. There is a lot of reason to be excited about him. But we’ve got a whole team of guys that are working hard and are excited to play. They all have to do their jobs.
What have your impressions been of Auston Matthews in the lead up to the series? Has there been any thought in your mind about how many minutes you can give him and your other big guys considering the layoff and the questions about conditioning?
Keefe: I think Auston is fine in that regard. I think he is right there with everybody else — both on our team and, I suspect, around the league. He hasn’t missed a beat since we opened camp. He hasn’t missed a rep. He hasn’t missed a day. He has been doing all of the work like everybody else. I believe he is ready.
I am not planning on holding back on him or any of our other guys. We are going to play them as we see fit, or what the game calls for, and what is happening, and how he is doing. There are so many things that affect a player’s ice time that you don’t really think much about, such as how often there are whistles, how many penalties there are, where the TV timeouts fall, the rotations. There are so many things that impact a player’s ice time. When he is rested, he will be out there.