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

After practice on Sunday, Sheldon Keefe discussed his team’s preparedness for a challenge as big as Tampa Bay, the physical nature of the series, the goaltending matchup, the status of his injured players, and much more.

Practice Lines – May 1

What is the status of Ondrej Kase and Michael Bunting for Game 1?

Keefe: Kase looks close, but we will make a decision on him tomorrow. Let’s call him a game-time decision.

Bunting also is close. They wanted to see how he responded today. I would say he is doubtful for tomorrow, but we certainly expect to see him in the series.

Is Rasmus Sandin healthy enough to play if you chose?

Keefe: No, I don’t think he is there. I think he is close, but he just hasn’t had enough of a workload for me to consider him an option at this point.

You have said that the hardest the first-round opponent, the better for this group. Why do you feel that way?

Keefe: I just think, if you are going to push through the obstacle that we need to get through here, you may as well start with the best. These are the champs. Any time we have been challenged as a hockey team — and I am just focusing on this season — we have responded really well.

We have great respect for Tampa Bay. There is no doubting, arguing, or debating it. They are the class of the league at this point. They have proven that. They have earned that. There is no doubt our team will be ready for them.

How much is the weight of not having won a series in so long weighing on this group?

Keefe: There is no doubt guys are aware of it. We have been through a lot here. The guys have been through a lot even before my time. The focus is simply on this team and this opportunity that we have here.

We have been through a lot to get through 82 games. You experience a lot of different things. Your team and the individuals get tested a lot through the 82 games.  I just focus on this team.

This team is excited about the challenge ahead. They know the challenge is great. That just makes the opportunity greater.

The guys are ready. Today’s practice was extremely focused. Great energy amongst the group. They felt refreshed to me by the fact that we have turned the page on the regular season and moved on to the playoffs. The guys are excited.

When Tampa won their Cups, they received phenomenal play from their third line. The same line is not there anymore. How different is that team now without those three guys?

Keefe: We will see what their lineup is going to look like in terms of how they will deploy their guys. They will try different things, but if we focus on what they have used most recently, they have recalibrated a little bit now. It seems like they are using Cirelli and Killorn in a lot of the ways they were using Gourde, Goodrow, and Coleman previously.

The guys who have come in have started by playing together, and now they have mixed them up on different lines.  There is still essentially the same fourth line in terms of the identity, the way they play, and Maroon, Perry, and Bellemare’s presence with what they brought. That is a very good fourth line for them.

To me, no matter how it shakes out, it is still three very dangerous lines. Stamkos is maybe playing better than he has ever played. You have all of those things going on for their team that gives them a bit of a different look.

Those guys you referenced — I am sure they would say they were significant contributors, and yet their stars were stars.

Is Tampa a team that can be a model in terms of their disappointment against Columbus, followed by a reset, and then their Cup success?

Keefe: We think there are some parallels there that are not uncommon for any champion that they have to go through something like that. Our team certainly has had its share. Those guys, before having that disappointment, were close previously.

Certainly, with this core that they have, they went through that, and they haven’t looked back since. We feel like we have been through our own difficulties and disappointments. We’re ready to come out the other side of it.

Again, if we are going to find our way through it, we may as well start with the team that has figured it out.

What do you consider the hallmarks of this particular Leafs team?

Keefe: The biggest thing is belief. That was an important thing from the start. We instilled the belief in the group coming off of last season’s disappointment with the additions that we made to our team, believing in them, and having those things fall into place.

The fact that we believe we can compete with anybody — we believe we can find our way through any situation and play the game any way you want to play it — are all important.

Our team, especially in the last couple of months of the season, really played well defensively and plugged a lot of holes in terms of our rush defense, odd-man rushes, and things of that nature. We showed our ability there.

Special teams have been a marked improvement for us this season. We want to carry that through to the playoffs.

There is also the fact that we have responded when we needed to. Obviously, we had a very disappointing game down in Tampa most recently, but that stretch of games — Florida at home, in Boston, in Tampa — is really where we played our best hockey at that time when we really challenged our team. Those are the models for us going forward.

What have you seen from Jack Campbell in the last month that makes you believe he is ready for the playoffs?

Keefe: Just playing the way he was earlier in the season. That was a big priority for us, obviously — to get him healthy and to have him confident and rolling in the net. That is exactly where we have left off here.

He had an unbelievable practice today. He is feeling good, and that is obviously good news for us.

What gives you confidence your team can compete in a physical series in round one?

Keefe: Just that we have done it through the season. We expect it. We got a taste of it when we were down in Tampa. I have watched them play through their playoff runs. I have re-watched it since. They are a team that is going to be very physical and competitive. When I look at their playoffs — especially in the first round last year — they led the league in skirmishes after the whistle.

There is all sorts of stuff. I expect it to be a very physical, borderline violent series in a lot of ways. Our guys will be ready for that.

Did that play into your decision to include Ilya Lybushkin, Kyle Clifford, and Wayne Simmonds in Game 1?

Keefe: Those guys are a big part of our identity in that way. We can only go off of how the games have been recently, how Tampa has played when they have had success in the playoffs, and how they played the last time we played them. They are extremely physical and competitive.

We need to have our guys that are going to be physical and competitive just the same. The officials will have to decide how they want to call the game, but our expectation based on history is that it is going to be very physical. A lot of stuff is going to be let go. We have to find a way to play through that and initiate it ourselves.

I think we have done that very well throughout the season. I know we will be ready to do it again.

How does control of the matchups in Games 1 and 2 influence your lineup for the start of the series?

Keefe: There are some things that we will look to do there. We will have to see exactly how their lines shake out. Like us, they have tried a lot of different combinations. They seem to have some that have worked very well for them in the last little while.  That is what we are preparing for at this point.

We will have to see how it all shakes out. They do have a lot of flexibility there both on forward and defense. They move things around. We will be mindful of that and make the necessary decisions.

With our group, again, because of how we move things around, our guys are comfortable to adjusting on the fly.

What challenge does Ryan McDonagh present to your team?

Keefe: He is just a strong defender. To me, he is the best defender that they have. He makes it hard for you and gets in the way.

Obviously, they have Hedman who is both ways and is such a threat offensively. McDonagh knows exactly what his job is and gets in the way. He is going to be physical and protect the net. He is very strong.

He just does the necessary things to help their group win and complements the rest of the D-core well.

You can’t get everybody into Game 1, but do you figure you will need other guys as the series goes along?

Keefe: Without a doubt. It is going to be a challenging series — one that will have its ups and downs. We hope that we remain healthy, everybody plays well, and we really get rolling. The reality is that you go into a playoff expecting you are going to need depth.

We believe we have that with guys that won’t get to play in Game 1 and guys that might be injured or whatever the case may be. We still like our group a lot.

What, if anything, do you think Jack Campbell can take from his first playoff series last year?

Keefe: Another thing that should help his confidence and he should feel good about. I think that experience fueled him to have a great season here. I know he is a confident guy right now. He is feeling good about his game. He looks at it as a great challenge and opportunity knowing there is a world-class goalie at the other end. Like their team, [Vasilevskiy] has been the class of the league when it comes to these playoffs recently and winning.

I certainly know that Jack is up for the challenge there.

Paul MacLean has been around the rink recently. Has he been helping you with scouting ahead of the series?

Keefe: It has been great having Paul. He has come around quite a bit as Covid restrictions have reduced. He has been around more frequently. It is good to have his presence around.