On an off-day for the players, Sheldon Keefe discussed Auston Matthews’ goal-scoring title, his team’s preparedness for the physical challenges of the playoffs, the level of pressure his team is feeling at playoff time, and how the team is going to handle the crease-crashing presence of Josh Anderson, Corey Perry, and Brendan Gallagher.
You’ve talked about Auston Matthews’ 200-foot game. In a few days, he is going to clinch the Rocket Richard Trophy. No Leaf has led the NHL in scoring in 75 years. Can you put that in perspective, especially with how he has scored in so many different ways?
Keefe: I don’t think it is new that he is scoring in different ways. He has always done that. He has just done it with even greater frequency, which is the greatest thing. He was scoring at such a high rate as a young player even before this season, and he has taken that to another level.
He has always been a guy who scores in multiple ways — in and around the net, in tight, off the pass, or carrying it and creating a shot for himself. He can score in multiple ways. I think that is obviously the biggest reason you see him separating himself from others in the league.
There are other really great scorers that don’t have as many dimensions to their game. That is a credit to Auston and the positions he puts himself in, and of course, the contributions he gets from his teammates to help with that.
He has had a tremendous season, and yet it’s not been a smooth season. We all know he has been dealing with different injury situations at different times that have directly impacted his ability to shoot and handle the puck. That makes you wonder what could’ve happened had he been healthy all the way through.
It is just tremendous. It is a credit to him and the talent that he has. The thing that I have come to really appreciate with a player like him is just how hard he works to continue to stay sharp and not just stay sharp but add different layers and different dimensions to his game, whether it is offseason or in-season.
The amount of work that he puts in — there have been some nights where he has scored a couple of goals, and everybody is talking about him and his goal-scoring and how great his goals are, and the next morning, he is on the ice 30 minutes before the team working at scoring goals.
There is incredible attention to detail with him there. He is working to master that craft. It is great to see him get rewarded.
What gives you confidence that your group can handle the physicality Montreal plans to bring to the series? Do you think you are better equipped for that kind of battle than you were going into the Columbus series last year?
Keefe: We are far better equipped to handle whatever way the game will be played. We also have the ability to initiate things ourselves. In terms of the confidence, we have played against Montreal 10 times during the regular season. Statistically, they are right near the top of the league in terms of physicality. We have dealt with that. We are used to it. We know it is going to go to a higher degree in the playoffs, as it will for our team as well. It is just part of the deal.
Our players who have been on our team for the last number of years have grown through it and are ready to take it on. The additions that we have made to our team throughout this season or in the offseason will also help us in that regard.
What do you know now about Jack Campbell as a player and a person that you wouldn’t have known a year ago?
Keefe: The biggest thing that I would take away from this season — we know Jack has been a great teammate and he is an incredibly hard worker, and we saw that he had the talent and ability to put together great games and get consecutive wins, but then adversity hit. We started to lose games as a team. He started to put together back-to-back starts that he wasn’t happy with. His ability to respond to that was the thing that we found out and really liked.
That is where things really kind of turned the corner for him. At that point — for me, at least — it wasn’t just him getting hot and putting together a good string, but now that things were starting to go the other way, can you bring it back? He went into Winnipeg at a time when our team was reeling a little bit and really found his confidence in that game.
Our confidence as a team has really grown since then. His ability to handle that adversity was just another layer to him when you bring in the personality, the energy, the positivity that he has, the work ethic. Those are things that anybody in hockey who has been around Jack Campbell speaks to. But he dealt with some adversity this season, met it head on, and turned the corner. That was a big moment for him.
Do you see the playoffs as another step for him knowing it is a big stage and he has never played in the playoffs before at age 29?
Keefe: Of course. It is another opportunity and another step for him. I think if you look at it as it relates to Jack, the whole thing with no fans — that in and of itself — just makes it feel like another regular-season type of game. There is going to be no real change there. Certainly, the stakes are higher, and he and all of our players would recognize that, of course.
You can’t do anything but look at it as another opportunity to take a big step and shine on this stage. The reality is, when you are playing for the Leafs in the Canadian division, the limelight is quite bright all season long. He has shown the ability to shine within that, step up, and perform at a high level. I know he is really excited to play. Our guys are really excited to play in front of him.
As I have said before, the way that our goaltending depth has grown in the last season has been tremendous. I think that gives the whole team confidence.
The importance of generating passes from behind the goal line against goalies like Carey Price — how do you generate those types of plays in the playoffs when the space is as tight as it is?
Keefe: You’ve got to look for your opportunities. No matter who is in goal, if you look at the goals that are scored in the NHL, there is a high number of them that happen on plays like that, but they are not easy to manufacture. You have to earn that throughout the game.
We are going to have to find our space, find our opportunities, find our turnovers, and find some loose-puck situations where their structure is not set. Those are the kinds of things you are looking for. We are going to have to find different ways to score than just that because those chances are going to be difficult to come by.
How do you view the challenge of going up against Price? You are going to face a good goalie no matter who you play in the playoffs, but how about one with Price’s reputation of being able to step up in those big moments and ability to lift up his teammates? How do you face that and how do you ensure it doesn’t become a mental factor as you go into this series?
Keefe: Like you say, any goalie you face has the ability to play really well and change a series — all of those kinds of things. Certainly, a goalie of Price’s pedigree has that.
We are looking even beyond that, frankly. You look at Gallagher’s presence and what he brings to the team, the combination of Gallagher, Price, and Weber — all have missed periods of time — and the fact that we are now playing a rested team that wasn’t contending with an unprecedently challenging schedule, we are going to see a different Montreal team than what we saw down the stretch.
We know that. We have great respect for them and the challenges that they bring. We are focused on playing our absolute best because we know it is going to require that.
The Habs have a trio of guys — Gallagher, Anderson, Perry — who make a living of creating havoc near the blue paint in front of the net. We have seen in the playoffs so far that there are a lot of scrums around the net. Where do you and your players draw the line between protecting the blue paint and not taking foolish penalties against guys whose part of their repertoire is to get under the opponents’ skin?
Keefe: I think we have to do what we can to protect our net. That has been a mandate of ours all season long. I think we have done a much better job this season of preventing teams from getting access to our net and more importantly, from getting access to the puck around our net.
In terms of all of the other stuff, we have to compete, show up, and be present, but we can’t get caught in any sideshows. We have to play the game and compete on the ice. Our guys are going to be physical — physical with intelligence — and be very purposeful with how we play.
I think we can play the game any way you want to play it all throughout our lineup. We have to be aware of who our opposition is, what they do, and what our strengths are, but I think the opposition has lots to worry about with us as well.
Much has been said and written about the team’s inability to win a playoff series over the last number of years. Do you get any sense that there are some tight collars in the dressing room? How important is it to win the opening two games at home to kind of plant seeds of doubt in the Canadiens players’ minds?
Keefe: In terms of the pressure, I don’t sense that at all. Our team recognizes the opportunity we have here. They believe in the group. The nice thing about our team from day one is that you know what you are working towards but you are also having fun working towards it.
In one of the earlier pressers Joe Thornton had, he had the quote, “I have no stress, man. I really don’t.” I think that just sums up the feeling of our team. We know the work that is required, though, to push through. We are not discounting that. Our group just recognizes this is a different team than the groups we have had in the past.
If you are a guy who has been here in the past and maybe failed to push past the first round, you feel and you know this is a different group. If you weren’t here, you don’t care about any of the stuff in the past. It is irrelevant.
We know we have a good team that can accomplish great things. All of that said, that is all big-picture, big-focus stuff. Because we have had such a game in between games here, you are looking picture and talking big picture, but the reality is, as Thursday is approaching here, you zoom in on Game 1 and focus on that. You want to give yourself every opportunity to come out, get off to a good start, and establish yourself in a series.
That goes without saying. The opponent is going to be doing the exact same thing. They are going to want to come in and assert themselves early. They have their own pressures and adversities they are looking to deal with. They are a team that was built for this season. They invested significantly in changing their team and their culture this season. They are in a market similar to ours. I don’t think the pressure is a whole lot different there.
The two teams are going to look to establish themselves immediately in the series. Our goal is to start well, of course.
You’ve played all 56 games in an empty building. You can see the home advantage in the other series. What kind of challenges do you have to try to get the team lifted when the environment is going to kind of feel the same in the building as it has in the regular season?
Keefe: It is a challenge that the teams in the U.S. aren’t dealing with. For the teams with the crowds, you can see the emotion and the benefit it brings there. But that is something we are watching on TV. That is not something that is real here in Canada. It is not something we have to deal with either at home or on the road.
The emotion of the moment, and the fact that we know millions of people are watching on TV, and the fact that you are working for an opportunity to compete for that Cup — that in and of itself is enough to get the emotion level high for the players.
We have the experience of competing in the bubble last season with no fans. The emotions, at least in our Columbus series and really all the way through, were extremely high despite that.
We know no different in Canada right now. This is what we have in front of us. I don’t think the emotions and intensity are going to be a problem.
You’ve been using more balanced units on the power play in the last few days of practice. Does that have to do with the ice time of your best players, or are you returning to what you did earlier in the season when you had two balanced power-play units?
Keefe: It is less about ice time. In the playoffs, we are playing to win. You are thinking big picture, but you are focused in on winning every game. We are less concerned about the ice time. Our best players are going to play and play a lot.
We have been using primarily one loaded unit for quite a while even going back to last season. They have good experience together. You are still going to see that group play together. We haven’t made any final decisions as to how we will start. We expect to use that unit as well as the balanced groups.
We like some of the elements of the balanced groups in terms of having multiple threats on different units and spreading the puck around a little bit differently that way. There are different things we like about it.
We have had, for the first time, a good chunk of practice time and a healthy team here to be able to give ourselves some different looks. I think you’ll see us continue to use both looks and both opportunities to use different things.