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

After practice on Saturday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Michael Bunting’s play through two games, Jon Cooper’s comments about his lack of concern about the Lightning’s ability to score on the Leafs, Justin Holl’s performance in his first game of the series, and much more.

Practice Lines – May 7

What is the mood around the team after last night’s win?

Keefe: We’re obviously feeling good any time you come off of a win in the playoffs. At the same time, I think it is very business-like. We feel good about winning the game on the road here and giving ourselves a 2-1 lead in the series, but I know our team can play better and is going to have to play better. That is our focus. Today is a bit of a recovery day for our team, but certainly, as we go into tomorrow, we are looking to play even better.

When you are going up against the two-time Cup champions, is it about trying to impart on the team that you can’t give them any life?

Keefe: That is what I am talking about. We like a lot of things we did in the game, but I look at it, and I still see a ton of things we can do better as a team and things we can do better as individuals. That is our focus: to continue to build.

It is still early in the series here. Through three games, you’ve got a pretty good indication and feel for your opponent and they for us, I am sure. I still think that we haven’t played our best hockey. I think we can still be better.

Coming back from his injury, where do you think Michael Bunting is at?

Keefe: In terms of the injury, I think he is fine. I don’t think there are any issues there. It is coming back from an injury, and you are also coming back and playing in the playoffs for the first time.

Especially when you are going to play on that line, it is not easy minutes. I thought that line had a hard time last night. I thought it got better when we made the change. We’ll look to start that way tomorrow.

Bunts is an important player for us. He scored a big goal for us in Game 2. I think he will continue to get better the more reps that he gets.

What is it about Alex Kerfoot that he seems to elevate in the playoffs?

Keefe: Kerf is a very competitive guy. He is very responsible. He is very good in all areas of his game. That translates very well to this time of year. His details and his habits are good. Those don’t change.

Last night, he made a bit of a mistake there in the second period on the penalty kill. That doesn’t change who he is. We give him an opportunity to move up in the lineup after that and do a good job. It seems like whatever line he is on improves.

Why does it seem like it raises his game in the playoffs? I don’t know if it’s raising his game or if it just continuing to play his game despite the fact that it gets harder. Whatever it is, we like it, and he is an important guy for us.

Did you talk to him about that mistake?

Keefe: It was very obvious that he knew. He was well aware of it. I talked to him before the third period began just about shaking it off but more so that I needed him to go help that line. They were going to face a tough matchup. I needed him to have a good third period for us.

He seems to be the template for the kind of player you really like as someone who can play so many positions. You have a number of guys who can do that — Blackwell and others. How important is that kind of player in the playoffs and in general?

Keefe: Very important. We have our stars — our real difference-makers — and they get a lot of attention for good reason, but when you are building a team, you need to be able to have a diverse team of guys who can do different things and different types of players.

Within the season, even when you slot someone in and you have your lineup with everyone slotted in where you think is ideal, hockey happens. Mistakes happen. Guys’ games go up and down. Injuries happen, and matchups.

You need to be able to move people. You need depth to be able to do that. Your depth has to be versatile or you are really locked into a lot of different things. When I look at our team last season, we lost John early in the playoffs. I thought Kerf elevated and did a great job for us in that spot, but we were really limited and locked into a lot of other spots that didn’t allow us a great of flexibility.

This season, because of the Kampfs, Kases, Buntings, Engvall, Kerf, and adding Blackwell, there is extra versatility to the group. There is no doubt. We have taken advantage of that all season.

How do you get an offensive player like William Nylander to buy into defensive responsibility at this time of year?

Keefe: I think it is understanding that you have to be good both ways, especially in the playoffs when you are playing against one of the top teams in the league. Any time you are in the playoffs, you are going to play against the top 16 teams in the league. They’re all that is left. Certainly, in our case, we are facing the back-to-back champs. The depth that they have is going to create great challenges.

You have to play both sides. It is not just Will. It is Auston. It is Mitch. It is our guys on the other end of it. You talk about Kampf, who is so great defensively. There are going to be times he has to step up offensively on that side of it. He did that last night by scoring us a huge goal.

It is just what it takes: both sides. There is a level of intensity required on both sides of the puck in order to succeed. That goes for all of our players.

Are you looking to spend a little more time in the offensive end than you did in the second half of the game? Does that go a long way to helping the likes of Nylander and Tavares get more involved offensively?

Keefe: I thought we had some really excellent offensive-zone time — maybe our best in the series — in the first half of the first period last night. There were some times we had trouble getting out of our own end and it caused some problems.

From there, against a team like that, if you don’t get out of your zone within the first 10 seconds or quicker than that, they are going to gain control, spread you out, and it is going to be really hard to get out. From there, you are pretty much putting yourself in a position where now we are containing and trying not to give up a high-danger chance in the slot.

We were in that mode a lot last night, especially in the second half of the game, so it took away from a lot of the offense. Our focus has to be on exiting quickly. Both teams are trying to accomplish the same things. We are a lot to handle. If we get by that 10-second threshold or so, we usually wear you down and are in control of play.

They are very, very similar and as good as any team in the league in that regard.  It is a big challenge for us defensively.

Jon Cooper said he is not worried about scoring goals against you guys. What are your thoughts on that?

Keefe: I think it is just his way of being confident and showing belief in his team. I think, if I were in his position, I would say a similar thing.

He was asked about Jack Campbell specifically and said his team had scored seven in the past two. How do you feel about how Jack has handled what Tampa has thrown at him?

Keefe: I think last night was a great indication of how he is playing. He is confident. He believes in himself. Even at times when it looks like he is beat, he finds ways to keep the puck out. He is tracking it really well.  It is the playoffs. Teams are going to try to make it hard on the goaltenders. We are trying to do the same at the other end.

We have to continue to do a better job of limiting chances and trying to help Jack out. Both goaltenders, for that matter, in the third period last night made game-saving type of saves. If Matthews scores on his breakaway or the rebound right after, or if Marner scores instead of hitting the crossbar and the post right after, they probably don’t have much of a push the rest of the way.

Vasilevskiy keeps them in, and then they score shortly after. Jack made a couple of game-saving saves for us down the stretch. The goalies were battling back and forth down. It is great to see Jack stand in there.

Did you get what you wanted switching Justin Holl and Timothy Liljegren?

Keefe: A big reason why Liljegren got the upper hand starting the series was the chemistry between him and Giordano that they displayed down the stretch of the regular season. That was a big part of it.

In the first couple of games, that pairing didn’t do as well as it had. On that end of it, especially coming off of a tough night on the penalty kill, you want to get Holl involved. I thought he did help on the penalty kill. I thought he did some good things in the game. There were a couple of mistakes inside there that we need him to do a better job on, and our forwards can help the cause as well.

To go directly to the question, I would say Justin went in and gave us a good game. We have to try to limit a couple of the mistakes that hurt us a bit last night.

We haven’t really seen low-scoring games in the playoffs like we often expect. Any idea why we haven’t seen it across the league so much?

Keefe: Hard to say. Obviously, the amount of special teams I am sure has been a factor. I haven’t followed the other series to see how much goal-scoring has been happening or whether the disruption of flow has helped and sort of broken down teams defensively.

Maybe it is just a continuation of the trend in the regular season at the same time.  There was an uptick of offense in the regular season.

I wouldn’t have the answer for certain on that other than to say it is also early. Teams, in each series, are still adjusting to each other, to the playoffs, and to the way the games are being called.

We are certainly going into every game prepared for it to be extremely tight.

Have you heard Jack Campbell’s communication in the net with his defenseman? The guys remark on it a lot.

Keefe: Not so much myself, but with the defensemen, they talk about that, and Dean [Chynoweth] talks about it. Steve Briere values it. You have someone like Jack who is an upbeat guy and has energy. You want to use that to your advantage when it comes to communication.

That is a good thing to hear and it is a good thing to have. It helps make things a lot easier. There has been some chatter on our bench about the importance of talking on the ice because things are pretty chaotic in the playoffs. It is 60 minutes of noise. It is loud.

You have to sort through that and play through that. When you are in proximity to communicate, it helps. A lot of times, you don’t have time to see what is happening because the plays close so fast. What you think maybe there isn’t.

Any help you can get from any of your teammates is helpful. In the goaltender’s case, he sees the whole game. That is a good, positive thing to have.

TJ Brodie seems to be having a great first half of the series. What are you seeing from him specifically?

Keefe: He cleans up a lot of mistakes and makes very few himself. I think he manages the puck well and rarely turns it over. Positionally, he is in good spots. He doesn’t take too many chances to put himself in bad situations. When his partner or the forwards make a mistake, he has the ability to clean it up with good reads, good sticks, and an ability to break up plays.