Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice

After practice on Wednesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed his team’s shutout win over Nashville, its ability to protect leads so well of late, Nick Ritchie’s discipline, and the challenge ahead against the Rangers on Thursday night.

What is Ondrej Kase’s status?

Keefe: He just blocked a shot late in the game. He took the day. We are going to see how he is tomorrow. He went and had a picture this morning. It came back clear. That is good news. We will just have to see how he is in the morning.

Besides Jack Campbell’s stellar play, what other elements have gone into protecting leads so well in the third period?

Keefe: When we look at games like last night or games like the one against Philadelphia, it is really the model of what we want to have in terms of controlling play, reducing chances against, and being patient for our opportunities on offense to extend the lead. That is really the model of what we want.

We have had games where we have done it extremely well. We have had other games where we have had to rely on Jack too much. It certainly is a good trend for us — something that was important coming into the season. If you look at the truly elite teams in the league, it is an area they are very good in and really separate themselves from the crowd. When they get a lead, the game is over, and they take care of it. That is an important thing and a good trait of our team early on, but it is a long season.

John Tavares always seems stoic and unflappable, but he doesn’t get to where he is without a fire burning within him. In what ways have you seen that competitive fire with John?

Keefe: I said it from the start of camp that he has come in even more focused and driven this season. Even though he didn’t play in our playoff series save for a couple of shifts against Montreal, he has come in as fired up as anyone and motivated to improve our group and be better. You saw it from the initiative he took this summer to have the guys out in the offseason, with well over half our team spending a weekend with him training, bonding, and skating.

You could tell he was even more focused and had extra urgency to his preparations. It is not a surprise he is off to the start he has gotten off to here even though, like our team, it took a little bit of time. He is in a real nice groove for us, producing on offense but also being good on defense, too.

Did you sense that there was a lot of anger from last season fuelling it?

Keefe: I think so. I certainly would hope so. I know from my conversations with John and all of our players, they were pissed off coming into training camp. That was fresh. That was the mindset we wanted to have. Our training camp and preseason were very good and reflected that. When the games started for real, it has taken some time to really get ourselves to a level where we can have success consistently.

I reflect on that loss in Carolina. At the time, I felt something in our team, both in the experience of having to paly against Carolina and how they play, and also how we played inside of the game. Despite not getting the results, there were a lot of positive indicators that showed that we were starting to come together as a group. We needed some things to start to fall our way, and they did in Chicago. We have not really looked back, save for maybe that LA game, since then.

That is all part of it. I really think a lot of that began in the offseason.

How do you keep that anger in the forefront over an 82-game season to prevent lapses similar to what happened at the start of the year?

Keefe: I don’t think I need to. Our players know what we have been through. They know where we are at and where we want to go. They don’t need reminders. They have been through a lot as a group. The season itself has ups and downs. There are enough reminders in there that you have to continue to improve, but I know in the back of everyone’s mind that we know what we have been through, what we are trying to get to, and how difficult it is.

I don’t need to be throwing it in their faces or anything like that. They know what is at stake. They know what we’ve been through.

Nick Ritchie missed a couple of shifts in the second period. Was that a direct result of the penalty?

Keefe: Yeah, just the penalty. I actually thought Nick was playing well, competing well. He gets in a fight, and it is a good-spirited fight and all of that, but it came to him because of how he was competing and playing. He gets a really clean contact against one of their top defensemen, it creates a turnover, and it launches Mitch and Auston on the 2-on-1. I thought there should’ve been an instigator in that case because the fight came after him. Regardless, because he was competing and playing like that, it happened. He was engaged in the game and making an impact.

Ritch and I talked before the season even started about penalties and finding the balance. I recognize it is difficult for him to play as hard and as competitively as we need him to be. Getting in a fight like that — I don’t have a lot of experience with that, but you can appreciate how it gets you fired up and takes a while to come down from. That is the challenge, right? To stay disciplined on it.

He missed a few shifts, but we got him right back in the mix because I did think he was doing well. There was a lot of game left at that time. Those types of penalties we can’t tolerate.

Is it not just a message to him but the whole team?

Keefe: Precisely. It is more about the team, frankly, than it is about Nick. I do sympathize with the type of game that he has to play to be engaged. At times, you cross the line a little bit. It is part of what you get. But you do need to control it there. It is a very tight hockey game. Retaliatory penalties like that don’t really help the team in any way.

That is really what it was about, but I wanted to get him right back in and keep him rolling right to the end of the game. I think, through my talk with him and the fact that he missed some shifts, the team recognized that we are not going to tolerate that.

What kind of challenge are you anticipating against the Rangers?

Keefe: Very good team. Right at the top of the league. High-end skill at both forward and defense. A goaltender that has been second to nobody in the league this season. We saw it first hand in the first time against them. We have to really bear down around the net and make life as hard as we can on him. At the same time, you have to be really dialed in defensively. They have a lot of guys who can counter, make plays, and make it hard on you defensively.

It is just like last night. It is a good team that is rolling and has had a lot of success, but it is a different type of team and a different challenge in terms of defending against them. Certainly, the goaltending situation is similar.