On a travel day on Wednesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Michael Bunting’s Calder Trophy nomination, his confidence in the team’s killer instinct heading into Game 6, and Jason Spezza’s role as a leader on the team.
What do you have to say about Michael Bunting’s Calder nomination announced this morning?
Keefe: It is terrific for him and his family, especially when it is the Calder Trophy like that. It is your first year in the NHL. It is a testament to the journey that you have been through. For a guy like him, it has taken a lot longer. He has had to put in a lot more work. He has had to stay resilient. He has had to continue to believe in himself. He has had to take advantage of opportunities that have come his way, and he has to earn those opportunities.
Even if you look at our situation here, he plays a lot of the season with Matthews and Marner, but he didn’t start there. He earned that. Early in the season, he was playing on our fourth line. Game to game and shift to shift, it became apparent that he was ready for more and was earning more.
To see that acknowledgment is a terrific thing.
It is not automatic for a player to click with star players. Why do you think it worked with Bunting?
Keefe: I think he is a well-rounded player in that he is an ultra-competitor. His feet move. He is on the puck. He creates chaos and turnovers both on the forecheck and around the net. Those things benefit good players.
The other thing is that he has a good skill set — an underrated skill set. He gets the puck. He is calm with it. He can make a tape-to-tape pass. He has the knack around the goal to finish chances when the puck comes to him in those spaces.
There is that, and then there is his personality. He has fit in very well with those guys off of the ice. That was apparent early on in our training camp. Especially with he and Auston, they were really connecting on a personal level. They are developing a great friendship. All of that created great chemistry for the group.
You have coached other teams to series wins at other levels. Is killer instinct something that is learned?
Keefe: I think that is fair to say. I think it is more so that the feeling of winning is contagious. It is one that is addicting in the sense that you want to keep with it. If you look at the team we are trying to beat here, they have that. That has carried them through two playoff runs and two championships.
That is what is going to make it that much more difficult to finish the job on them. They also went through their own experience to get them to where they are now. For us, it has obviously been a challenge for us to close out series, but it is one that we believe our team has worked for all season and has had that attitude to rise to challenges.
There are a lot of different things along the way, but the one last night — in terms of perseverance, sticking with it, stepping up in big moments, and not being denied — sets the table for us to have the confidence to finish this.
What did you learn from last year in terms of squandering three opportunities to close out the series?
Keefe: I don’t know if it is so much learning so much as it is knowing how hard it is and taking nothing for granted. You don’t want to give teams life.
This is a different situation, obviously. It is a different opponent, but it is a different team from us as well. Everything you go through in previous seasons becomes part of your start and part of your experience.
We believe we have the right mix and all of the right things happening to have the confidence to go out and play very well. That doesn’t make the challenge any easier.
We know what we are in for going into Tampa. We have played well in that building in our first game out there and got a good result. We are going to look to try to replicate that in terms of getting a good start and getting control of the game. We are trying to make them uncomfortable.
Jason Spezza dropped the gloves in the Columbus series. He had five points last year. Last night, he found a way to influence the game with his intermission talk. What is it about him that at this age and in this role, he is able to find a way to influence the team at this time of year?
Keefe: It just goes to what I am talking about. Everything you go through becomes part of your experience, part of your story, and part of what you call on in difficult moments. Spezza has been around longer than anyone. I am not sure between him and Gio where that is at, but both of those guys have been around a long time.
Spezz has a lot of history to him. He has been through a lot and has seen a lot. He also knows that he doesn’t have a lot of time left. He is all in. He is all in when he gets his chance and his opportunity, but he is also all-in on trying to push the others to try to get to where we need to get to.
He is doing everything that he can to try to will our team to success.