A day away from a series-deciding Game 7, Sheldon Keefe discussed the pressure the team is facing, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner’s production through six games, Jake Muzzin’s status, and his lineup decisions ahead of the series finale.
You, management, and the players have all put a lot into this season. How big is winning Game 7 for that reason, nevermind all of the talk about what has happened in previous playoffs?
Keefe: It is huge, obviously. We like our team. We like our group a lot. We have been through a lot. We had a great regular season to put ourselves in a position to be able to have this game played in our building. We want to continue this. There is no shortage of motivation.
There looked to be a lot of social media hate and vicious comments directed towards your players last night. At a time like this, how do you make sure the group is not paying attention to that and is in the right mind frame?
Keefe: That is really our focus — making sure that we are in the right frame of mind. With the many messages in training camp, one of them was to just block out the noise throughout the season. There is no more important of a time to do that than here right now.
Is there any word on Jake Muzzin?
Keefe: He is away getting further tests this afternoon. We don’t have word or update on his status yet.
Is there a possibility he could be available for tomorrow?
Keefe: He hasn’t been ruled out at this point, but again, we are waiting on results. I haven’t seen him here at all today yet. We will have more on that tomorrow.
How much is what is happening with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner a case of Montreal doing a great job against them, and how much is it them not being able to deliver?
Keefe: I think it is a little bit of both. Montreal has done a good job against them, although I went back through all of the different games we have played today and all of the different scoring chances, and the number of looks that those guys have had despite Montreal doing a really good job against them. They have found ways to generate some really good high-danger chances in every game. They haven’t executed, and it hasn’t gone in for them.
Obviously, the goaltender is part of Montreal and their plan with his ability to keep it out of the net. I would say it is a little bit of both. Those guys have to remain confident and not get distracted. I think those guys have played hard and they have played well. They haven’t been rewarded for it. They have to find a way as a line — no matter who it is — to score a big goal.
They scored a big goal in Game 5 that gave us life and fueled the comeback. Auston scored the game-winner in Game 2. There are lots of moments where those guys have had chances to make the difference. They have to trust those chances will be there again and make good on them. Throughout all of that, they have to continue to play hard, structured, and smart.
Certainly, we need everybody to be at their best tomorrow — our best players, in particular.
Have you been encouraged by William Nylander’s addition to that line when you have gone to it?
Keefe: I think it has been okay. We used it more last night than we have. I didn’t think it was Will’s strongest game of the series, so I don’t know if it was a true indication of what they could be capable of. It is something we’ve got to look at.
The question I am asking a lot of times: Will had been playing very well in the role with how I am utilizing him, and in the last couple of games, we’ve gone away from that a little bit in an effort to try to get him a little bit more. It really hasn’t gone as well for him. I have to try to manage that a little bit and make sure I am not getting him out of the rhythm he was in by trying to play him more with different people.
You have chased the game the last few nights. Even though the Habs didn’t score in the first two periods last night, they were on the gas pedal right out of the gates, and it was the same thing in Game 5. You can preach to your players about needing to have the momentum coming out of the gate, but how do you get that to translate into better starts?
Keefe: It is of course a question we have been talking through here today as a coaching staff. Obviously, that is an area of the game that hasn’t been nearly good enough for us in the last two. There is a responsibility for the players to be ready at the drop of the puck, but as a coaching staff and as a head coach, I take a lot of that responsibility myself to have the group ready. That hasn’t been the case.
We are looking at that. We are talking about that. I think it is a very important thing for us to establish that. At the same time, Montreal is a team that is going to come with lots of energy, speed, and pressure early. In games where we have had success as a team, we have managed that early on and then pulled away as the game has gone along.
They have been able to establish their game for a longer period of time in the last couple. We need to change that.
Do you contemplate getting Alex Kerfoot back between Alex Galchenyuk and William Nyander for tomorrow night from the start?
Keefe: That is one of the things I am looking at. We went to that a little bit through the third period and overtime last night. We moved things around a little bit there. Yesterday, we wanted to get a feel. We had Nick back in the spot we had him in before he left the lineup to get a sense of where he was at. Kerfoot has played very well for us no matter where we have had him.
That is something we have been looking at. It is a combination of Nick’s health and just how it affects the rest of the lineup. That is one of the things that is on my list today to sort through.
The old saying goes that your best players need to be your best players. Do you believe that to be the case for tomorrow? Are you going to absolutely need Mitch and Auston to come out and be difference makers for you guys to win it?
Keefe: Yes, of course. In a game of this magnitude, those guys need to be difference makers for us. We are not down on their game and how they have played. We think they have played very well. I have gone through and look at the number of chances that they have missed throughout, and just how fine of a line it is from them breaking out and having huge offensive numbers.
Obviously, there has been increased attention on it now that we have lost the last couple of games. When we were in control of the series, it was less so. I thought they were doing a good job there.
They know the responsibility they have to the team. That said, it doesn’t let anybody else off of the hook — myself included — in terms of the role that we have to play as a group to be able to win a game of this magnitude.
Knowing the past failures that some of the guys have been through with this team, what do you hope your leaders can do to make sure everyone stays loose before and during the game tomorrow?
Keefe: It is a big thing we talked about today. You leave the game last night and you get on the bus and on the plane, and you’re thinking about it throughout the day. You reflect on what the group has been through — in particular, our core group. We have talked about how this group we have here and this team is its own unit separate from anything that has happened in the past, but there are components of the group that have been through a lot here and are trying to push through this type of situation.
As much as it sucks how we got here and what we have been through the last couple of games — and we hate it — I really feel, frankly, that we are right we are supposed to be. We are facing a Game 7 situation — a very difficult task — at a time when the other team has momentum, at a time when you start to doubt and question yourself, and people on the outside doubt and question you. You have an opportunity here in Game 7 to embrace that and meet that head-on and push through it.
I think it is an incredible opportunity for our team. I woke up this morning extremely excited for our group. Last night, you feel like shit because of what you have been through. It was right there in overtime, you can end the series, and you don’t get it done.
But you wake up this morning and think about the opportunity the team has with everything that it has been through. Especially for our core guys to have this opportunity on this stage to push through it, I think it is an incredible opportunity, and I am very excited for our opportunity to play tomorrow.