On an off-day for the players, Sheldon Keefe discussed possible lineup changes for tomorrow, the top line’s play and production, the decision-making around William Nylander and the power play, and the challenge of closing out a series.
Any update on Nick Foligno and potential line changes for tomorrow?
Keefe: The update on Nick is that he skated this morning. It was another positive day for him. He does remain day-to-day. We will have to make a decision on him tomorrow.
How do you get your team to come out of the gates a little better? The players are talking about playing with more desperation as if it’s a Game 7. How do you walk the walk after talking the talk?
Keefe: I think it is just a matter of us being at our best. When we have played at our best, we have played very good hockey. We have played very good hockey throughout this series. I don’t think we need to focus on Game 7 or changing any sort of mindset or anything like that. We have to focus on playing our game and playing at our best. That is really it.
When we have done that, we have been very good in this series. We have been in control of things. We didn’t have a good game last night. Credit to Montreal. They have found another level. We dropped a level. That is not acceptable, and we paid for it.
We have an opportunity here now to get back on the road and play the way we have throughout the series.
As well as your first line has played, they haven’t produced a lot. How do they take their good play and turn it into production?
Keefe: There is a lot to it. Trying to generate even more high-danger chances is a great challenge. The other team’s goaltender has a say in it as well. That has been a major factor. We have been in alone. Last night, it was Hyman on a breakaway. Marner has been in alone a bunch of times throughout the last few games. That line did produce us a very important goal that gave us life last night.
To me, that line has played very well, but of course, they accept the responsibility they have to produce for the team offensively. They have taken on a lot in this series — a lot of minutes. We are playing without two of our top-six forwards. A lot more has fallen onto them. It has been a lot easier for the opposition to focus on them.
I think they have dealt with that very well. Perhaps we think that they can produce more and they would like to produce more, but they’ve yet to be scored on in this series. They have the best differential in terms of goals for and goals against of any line on our team or in the series.
There are a lot of really good things happening with them. They just have to stay with it, and when the opportunities are there, look to make good on them.
What is your sense of how the top line is handling that pressure to produce in this series?
Keefe: I think they are handling it fine. As I just highlighted, there are a number of really positive things that are happening for them. We tend to look at actual production as a big measuring stick. Of course, that is understandable, but if you score five or six goals but you give up five or six goals, you haven’t really helped the team. These guys haven’t given up anything despite playing the most minutes, despite spending a lot of time against really good players and really good matchups, and despite having to take faceoffs in their own end, which a lot of top lines don’t necessarily do.
They have taken on a lot. They have played very well for us. It is just a matter of time. If they keep getting those chances, we think they are going to fall in. We would like to find a way to get Auston some cleaner looks at the net. A lot of the best looks have come with Mitch and Hyman. Auston hasn’t been able to get as many clean looks. At the same time, he is drawing a lot of attention and focus there.
That is something for us to continue to look at — both in what we can do with that line, or if we are able to move some things around. We are mindful of it and looking at it, but we can’t take away from the fact that the line has performed very well. You really break it down statistically and match it up to the video in the games, and they’ve done a lot of really good things.
I can understand why you want the goal production to inflate and grow — they do as well — but they are contributing very positively to the success we have had throughout the series.
You mentioned Auston Matthews is struggling to find openings to shoot the puck. Is that something Montreal has done well to take away his space?
Keefe: For sure. They have done a really good job of defending that and making it harder on him. He has had a number of good looks — maybe not as clean or with as much time to utilize his shot necessarily, but he has had some stuff in and around the net with tight rebounds, quick shots, and quick plays in there. He has hit a couple of posts in the series.
He has had opportunities there for sure. Credit to Montreal for doing a really good job against him, but as I have said, if you go look at it and break it down from a scoring chance perspective, that line has been dominant in terms of generating scoring chances — especially relative to what they have given up.
With John Tavares out and William Nylander heating up, why have you opted to stick with the balanced approach on the power play?
Keefe: I think if you really look at it, we have moved things around here and there. When we were in Montreal the other night, we had Will with Auston and Mitch in Game 4. We have looked at different things. It is just simply a matter of how the roles on the power play come together and who plays in which spots — those types of things are really what it has been about.
Really, that’s it. We have liked having the two groups. The second group — I know the power play had ended by the time went in the net, but to me, the power play scored us a goal last night, and a very important one, with the second group. Will and Simmonds made a good play on that to help keep the play alive, and we got a puck to the net.
We are looking at different things there. The fact that we have lost John, who plays a primary role in the middle of the ice as a left-handed player, is something we think is really important on that power play. That is something that has led us to give Joe a little bit more time there.
When you look at what the defense has produced in this series, with Jake Muzzin scoring two goals last night, they now have 10 points to zero from Montreal’s blue line. What do you attribute that to?
Keefe: Part of it is the nature of the playoffs. We have talked about this before. It is a lot harder to get to the net. You tend to be shooting from greater distances, and you are trying to get traffic and things like that. It is an easier way for defensemen to get involved.
It just seems that is the way the bounces have gone here. We have scored on some things with distance shots that we have gotten sticks on or have found a rebound, and yet I don’t know where we are at here in terms of scoring on breakaways and 2-on-1s, but it is not very good. Our high-end chances, we haven’t necessarily capitalized on. That is why some of our forward production is down.
Again last night, we found a way to score three goals. That should be enough to win in the playoffs. You don’t have to look any further to me than the fact that they scored three unassisted goals last night. Two were actually unassisted, but to me, the OT winner is an unassisted goal as well. That is three out of their four goals as unassisted. That just speaks to the fact that we gifted them offense. That is something we can’t afford to do in the playoffs. If we clean that up, we do score enough to win the hockey game.
Prior to Game 5, you and several of your players were asked about closing out a series for the first time since 2004. You went to great lengths to specify that this team has nothing to do with the last 17 years or whatever. Is it difficult to make that separation and not have that past history or some of the weight of it felt within this specific group?
Keefe: I don’t think it is difficult. I don’t think our players look at it that way, save for the ones who have been here for multiple years. I think they feel it and recognize it. But would it be 75% of our team that hasn’t been here through a lot of those kinds of things? We have guys who have won many series. We have guys who have won the Stanley Cup. I just don’t think those guys feel that necessarily.
This team is independent of others, but there are guys within our group that know that. Other players want to support that. We are competing to extend our season. That is this group. This group loves being with each other. We want to continue along and move along to the next phase. That is the motivation, and that is the pressure.
It is very difficult to win a series. It is very difficult to end a team’s season. We have an opportunity to do that again tomorrow. We feel good about our team. We feel good about our chances. We feel good about how we’ve played in this series. We just have to go out and execute.
Do you plan to make a change on defense? Could we see Travis Dermott back in?
Keefe: We are talking about it. We will update you on that tomorrow.
Is your first instinct to let Rasmus Sandin climb out of it, or do you go back to Travis Dermott with his experience? How do you balance those things?
Keefe: Like I said, we will discuss this tomorrow. It has been an off day here for us with the team. I haven’t had any discussions with the players. I am not going to comment on any of that stuff until tomorrow.