Sheldon Keefe spoke to the media after his team’s 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins that improved the Leafs’ record to 32-12-3 on the season.
On his team’s performance:
I loved that we started fast. Any time that you are playing with a lead for 59 minutes or whatever it was, it is a good thing. And then, obviously, the special teams were really good again tonight — and need to be.
We talked about it before the game. This team, on both sides of it — power play and penalty kill — was going to challenge us as well or better than anybody we have seen in quite a while.
The guys were excellent today on the power play. We didn’t score early, but I thought we were able to get some looks and move the puck through their pressure pretty well. It was a big-time goal by Morgan — a huge goal for us.
On the penalty kill in the second period, the game can change dramatically if we don’t get it done there. Not only do we get it done and get out of it clean, but we got a huge shorthanded goal again.
I love those parts of it, and then Jack Campbell was just outstanding in the net.
On how big the early goal was for setting the tone coming off of the West coast trip:
Huge. It is not easy coming back from that trip. It is tough. Yesterday, at practice, we had a lot of guys who were still feeling it and hadn’t had a great night’s sleep since. It can be a challenge. We had a good team coming in here.
We wanted to set the tone back on home ice. We had some fans back in the building. There were lots of reasons for us to come out and get off to a good start. When you are talking about getting off to a good start, you are not necessarily talking about scoring like that; you just want to set the tone in the game and really get your legs moving.
For our best people to step up like that and give us that kind of start was nice. It got the fans into it right away. We didn’t trail at all in the hockey game, so that is a really positive thing against a good team. We responded well to the special teams and all of that.
It was a great start for us. It is nice to come back with the fans back in the building and give them a good win here tonight.
On the team’s improvement on the penalty kill from the bottom 10 in the league to the top five this season:
There are a bunch of things there. Dean [Chynoweth], without question, has brought a lot to our group — fresh eyes, fresh system. He has the guys prepared and does a really good job of that.
We had a lot of confidence in our penalty kill coming into the season and that it would be better. We looked at it, and with all of the things happening with the underlying stats and whatnot, there is a lot of good things happening with our penalty kill. It gave us reasons for optimism.
In particular, with Jack Campbell, we were over 90% in the games he played last season. That would have had us number one in the NHL. That is a big part of it, too.
David Kampf is a huge part of it, and then just more confidence as a group. Alex Kerfoot has taken another big step. Ilya Mikheyev has taken another big step. Kase’s addition… all of those kinds of things. Our defense is pretty much the same.
With all of those things combined, plus confidence… Our guys don’t get rattled. We were taking penalties tonight, and the guys just go over the boards very business-like and get the job done. It is great.
The penalty kill, like the power play, is one of those things that you have to stay with because it can get away on you if you don’t. We had a tough December on the PK, but we are really rolling right now, and the confidence is high.
On what has stood out about Auston Matthews’ nine-game point streak:
I wouldn’t say anything has stood out. He is a great player. He read that situation on the first goal today. He is a center, so a lot of the time, he is the first guy back. We had support there. We created a turnover, he reads it, and he jumps by. Big-time finish on that.
It was a huge goal in response in the third period tonight given we give one up. It was a great play, first of all, by Mitch. He blocked a shot and fought through. His arm was sore there, and he just keeps playing and makes a play.
Big-time play by Matty and a great finish. That is a huge goal for us. That is what we have come to expect from those guys.
I wouldn’t say anything, in particular, stands out about Auston. At this point, you just come to expect great things. He is delivering.
On Auston Matthews’ status after leaving the game briefly in the third period:
He has some wounds, but he came back for a shift. He was fine to continue. I just chose not to play his line more than that one shift when he came back. As far as I know, he will be fine. He is just getting some further repairs.
On Morgan Rielly’s end-to-end goal:
Loved his initiative to recognize the situation. They were doing a good job there. They were underneath the drop. He had some space. He has the green light to go when that is the case. He has the legs to be able to jump into space.
I loved that he recognized the opportunity and took the initiative to take it himself. What a finish on the shot, too. Great goal at a very important time in the game.
On whether the take-it-yourself play is open more often for defensemen as teams sell out on the drop-pass on the power play:
Yes and no. There are opportunities for the defenseman to skate more frequently. It is usually not that open. To jump into a hole and get in behind, their defenseman made a mistake on that. He got too wide and opened up too big of a hole. We jumped in. I think they weren’t necessarily expecting Morgan to go in that case.
With the way the league works, when we play the next game, if Morgan tried the same thing, he is going to get jammed up, and there is not going to be a whole lot of space there. That is just the way the league is.
Sometimes, the defenseman can skate in that case and it works like it did today. Sometimes, he can skate and because a lot of his support is behind him and a lot of the other guys are standing still at the line, it can be a challenge for you after you enter. You can end up being in an even-man situation, and you have lost your advantage. That is why I think you don’t see it more frequently.
At times, teams make a mistake and maybe they sleep on it. It is not something we do all that frequently, so they wouldn’t have been prepared for it. That is why you have your best people on the power play. They have to be able to read those situations and improvise.
On the play of the Muzzin – Sandin / Dermott – Holl pairings:
I thought they did a good job. I would have to watch it back. There is a lot of detail inside of it for defensemen. You have to really watch and see how that went.
There were some times tonight where I thought we gave up the neutral zone a little bit too easily. There was a lot of stuff coming at us on the rush again. That team is as good as anybody in the league coming from their own end to your net. They made it hard on us at times.
I thought there were some good things there. Muzz and Sandy don’t have a ton of time playing together. We just kind of put that together today. I thought they did a good job,
I thought Justin Holl had a good game today. Dermott hasn’t played in a while, but he stepped in and gave us good minutes. There are times, because of Holl’s presence there, Dean was trusting him and putting him out against Crosby or Malkin. That is a good thing to have — the ability to play all three pairs in those situations.
Of course, having the lead helped our cause there, too.
On why he gave Sandin the look next to Muzzin:
It was a combination of things. With the Brooks and Liljegren situation, we knew we were going to be removing Liljegren from the lineup. It created a hole for us on the right side. It was either going to be Dermott or Sandin that were going to play on the right side. We thought it was a chance to get a look at something we haven’t seen with Liljegren out of the lineup.
I also thought putting Holl on a different pairing from Muzzin was something that we wanted to do to continue with how we finished at the end in Seattle. It kind of made sense for us that way.
Rasmus is fairly comfortable playing his offside, though he hasn’t had a lot of experience at this level. He has done it previously. He is a pretty confident guy. No matter where you put him, he is good with it.
On what stood out about Jack Campbell’s performance:
He has been outstanding for us all season, but I just thought today was maybe as calm and poised as he has looked all season. I thought we defended pretty well, but at times, there is a lot of stuff happening in tight. On even the difficult saves, he made it look easy tonight. That was really, really good.
He made the coach feel comfortable on the bench today. He just looked calm. It seemed like he was tracking things really well. Any time it seemed like there was a dangerous shot coming, by the time it hit him, it just settled and it seemed like it was easy with the way he was seeing it.
It is unfortunate that we gave up the goal because we didn’t do a good job on that. It was a tap-in at the post. He deserved a shutout tonight. I thought he was excellent. It is hard to say because he has been so good, but behind the bench, it was as good as he looked all season.
On whether it’s easy to forget that Michael Bunting is a rookie:
Because of the role he plays on the team, he is so involved. I don’t think of it that way. When questions such as that come up, you happen to see it mentioned, or you take a step back, you do think, “This is a guy that I don’t even know if he’s played against every team in the league yet.”
He hasn’t been around that long. He is an older guy; he spent a lot of time in the American league, obviously, but the more comfortable and confident that he gets… not that he is not comfortable or confident — because he is — but he is going to get even more of that.
He has a lot of swagger about him. He has a chip on his shoulder. That is not going away. Rookie or not, that is going to be a part of who he is. The more confident he gets and more comfortable he gets in the league — and picks his spots — we think he is going to continue to get better.
He has just fit in very well with Auston, in particular, and then with Mitch, it just completes the line.