On a travel day on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed falling short in an elimination opportunity in Game 6, the confidence of his team going into Saturday’s Game 7, and why he believes the outcome will be different this year.
When you take the whole season into account — slow start to the year, Covid, everything you’ve overcome to get to this point — is this just another challenge put in your way that you believe you can get past?
Keefe: For sure. I am really just focused on the series here as the biggest thing, but certainly, all the work we put in to get in this series and compete in this series has prepared us to be in a situation where we give ourselves the chance to win the series.
We had the chance to win the series last night. We have a chance to win the series tomorrow night. Because of all of that work, the game so happens to be in Toronto. The feeling in our team is one of great confidence.
What sort of an impact do you feel peak performance coach Greg Harden has had on the team this season?
Keefe: It has been nothing but positive.
Justin Holl has had his ups and downs like anyone else. What has he shown you in the way he has handled it?
Keefe: That he’s been even-keeled and put the necessary work in when we needed it. He’s had his time out of the lineup during the regular season and put in the extra work and tried to make himself prepared for his next opportunity.
In this series, it has been no different. Since he has come in, he has done a really good job for us.
Your team has rallied from 2-0 deficits two games in a row, one resulting in a win and one resulting in an overtime loss. There was the sense that your group wasn’t rattled by being 2-0 down. How much can you take from that as far as being ready for anything in Game 7?
Keefe: I think a lot. We talked about it. Our performance in Game 5 and finding a way back in that game was a huge moment for our team. I think that moment helped us in Game 6. I think the two combined will help us in Game 7 for anything that might come our way.
I think it just speaks to the fact that our team is our team and this season is unique and different. It is the belief we have in our group. It is our top players that are executing at critical times and helping us find our way back. The team is playing well as a group.
All of those things combined give us great confidence going into the final game here.
Heading into Game 7, what is the primary reason you believe the team should have confidence?
Keefe: All of the things I just said there, and all of the things we have done all season long to put ourselves in a position to compete in such a difficult division, secure home ice in a series such as this, and stand in and go toe-to-toe with the back-to-back champions.
We feel like the fact that our top players are thriving, feeling good, and are confident, as well as the reaction and boost we have had from our fans throughout the series, all combine with the perseverance and the grit that we have shown to come back in the last two games. We just feel like this team has lots of fight in it and confidence and belief in what we are doing.
It doesn’t make the game, the challenge, or the opponent any easier, but we certainly aren’t uncomfortable as we go into this game. We are ready for it.
Is there anything that happened in the Game 7 last year that will inform how you approach Game 7 this year?
Keefe: I really do look at the two situations as far different. Going into Game 7 last year and even in the Columbus series the prior year, you are on a bit of a downer going in because of your performance and how you failed to get it done.
Although we lost in overtime last night, which is similar in a sense to Montreal, the manner in which we played, the calibre of our opponent, how hard they have pushed us, how we have handled that, how we put ourselves in a position to win, and how our individual players are feeling with their confidence that they have — all of those things combine to fill our group with excitement.
Last night, Auston Matthews said, “We need to put our balls on the line in Game 7,” which might not be poetic, but is it the perfect way to describe the challenge?
Keefe: I think that is the perfect way to describe Game 7s. It requires an all-in effort. Obviously, there is nothing to save it for. You have to put everything you have into the game. That goes without saying.
With the opponent that we have, it is going to be two teams that leave it all out there. We believe in our group. They believe in their group. There hasn’t been much separating the two teams all the way through the series. It is fitting that it is a Game 7 to finish it.
From our group, I think we are in the right headspace here. We are excited to get back home and compete in front of our fans.