After practice on Saturday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed preparation for the first round against Tampa Bay as well as the status of his injured players.
You’ve known the first-round opponent is going to be Tampa Bay in the first round. How much of an advantage is that compared to some of the teams that just found out who they are playing against yesterday?
Keefe: We were certainly able to get a head start on our preparations — even more of an advanced start given we played them last season. You are a lot further ahead than you might have otherwise been for sure.
I think it helps you in the preparation and the expectations of what you are going to get. You know the opponent and some of the individual tendencies of the players. You are more familiar with that.
Of course, that would work on the other side as well. Any of that kind of stuff probably washes itself out. But right now, this is usually the time of year when you are kind of pressed and feel somewhat rushed to get the proper preparations in order for your opponent. We have had notice, so we have been chipping away at it over time.
Now, even having the three days — four days if you count yesterday — to really kind of fine-tune everything and make it very clear and simplified for the players. All of it combined is just going to allow us to be of a free mind and just go out, play, and compete.
Ilya Samsonov doesn’t have the longest track record in the playoffs. What have you learned about him that makes you believe he is ready?
Keefe: He has just been really composed all season long. It hasn’t been a perfect season for him. It has been a great season, but it hasn’t been a perfect season.
At times, he has had to deal with some adversity. He had to regroup and reconnect with his structure and the foundation that he put in place through the offseason and early in this season. He has had to find his way late in the season to get success on the road.
He closed out the season tremendously in that regard. Our team has played well in front of him. The guys are confident and comfortable playing in front of him. With all of those things combined, I think he is ready.
He is clearly motivated as he has been all season long. That is why he put in the work he did in the offseason to come in here and take advantage of his opportunity.
How important is it that he doesn’t give up the deflating goal?
Keefe: It is important. It is really thin margins at this time of year, of course.
He can’t be — nor can any of our players — focused on what they can’t do. They have to really focus on what they need to do, which is just to focus on every shot and every save. Be confident in the work they have put in.
We don’t want any of our players out there thinking of how things could go poorly. We want them to think about the things they can do that can lead them and us to success. That is really it.
Samsonov bet on himself with a one-year deal. What allowed him to become a part of the group pretty quickly?
Keefe: From day one, when Curtis Sanford contacted him and made that connection to spend time with him, with how excited we were about the talent that he had and the fact that we knew he would be a guy looking to bounce back… We had a new goalie coach in Curtis who was motivated to do well, but both guys coming into this opportunity — Samsonov and Curtis — were coming into fresh opportunities.
There is nothing else happening. They are just coming in to get his game right. I think there was a trust factor there early. Sammy put in the work. Our training staff and performance staff did a tremendous job of getting him ready through the season and dealing with the other times he had injuries or bumps and bruises.
He has just put in the work. I think he has been very motivated and very focused. The talent has always been there. He has a great pedigree as a goaltender. He is still a young guy that needed to find his way, but he has certainly done that.
Morgan Rielly has been through a lot this year with injury and different playing partners. Where do you think his game is at knowing how important he is to the group in the playoffs?
Keefe: First of all, he is very important for us, just as he was last season. To me, he had a really good round for us. He did a really good job.
Over the last six or eight weeks, Morgan has played some really good hockey for us. Like with a lot of our guys, he has kind of been waiting to turn from the regular season to playoff preparation and be excited about that.
Certainly, he is a very important guy for us on both sides of the puck.
How much do you talk about identity with your team at this time of year?
Keefe: Right now, it is about making sure we remain connected to that identity. We talk a lot about that throughout the season. It is really what the regular season is about, in particular for a team like ours — to develop that over the course of the season.
Every season, every team is different. You want that to be developing over time. We made a number of additions at the deadline, so we needed to sort of reconnect with that and develop that on the fly.
I really like the way it has come together here, certainly over the last month, and even more so in the last two or three weeks — really since O’Reilly’s arrival coming back in and solidifying our group that much more.
You develop it during the regular season. In the playoffs, it is about adhering to it and being confident in who you are. We have established ourselves as an elite team in the league. We’ll go out there, be respectful of our opponent, and know the challenges but remain connected to who we are.
This group isn’t responsible for the long history of the playoff failures, but how does the group embrace the pressure? How do you manage that with so much going on on the outside?
Keefe: There is a lot that goes into being a Maple Leaf. It is a special thing. I think everybody that has the honour to be a part of our organization recognizes what comes with that. We don’t take it lightly for a day.
That said, we can only focus on controlling what we have in front of us. Today is a day about preparation for us — more about preparation for the body than anything, which is why we opted for an optional skate. We still ended up with about 17 guys that were on the ice in various capacities, but it is more about time in the gym, time in the training room to get treatment, and things like that to get prepared for important practices upcoming and the playoff games against our opponent upcoming.
That is really all you can control: what is in front of you. We have a really good team. As long as we remain focused on the task and do not get outside of anything outside of our control, we think we will be fine. We have great confidence in our group.
What makes Brayden Point such a dynamic player to match up against? Does his season maybe not get enough attention around the league?
Keefe: He has found a way to score 51 this year. He will be feeling good, confident, and is taking a step from where he was even a year ago, and he has always been a dynamic player and difference-maker for them.
Why it didn’t get enough attention — I am not sure, but it certainly got a lot of attention inside these walls, in particular over the last month as we have been preparing for this series. We are looking at his game very closely.
You can see he is having a ton of success. He is skating probably better than ever, which is where a lot of his offense is coming from: he is generating from inside his own blue line with the speed he brings up the ice. It is a lot for us to contend with there.
We will be prepared for it. We can only manage so much. The power play is a significant piece of it as well. We will have to manage that. Staying out of the penalty box will be important.
At the same time, we have good players that they are going to be thinking of as well.
How important is it to be able to prepare for the power play that is going to have Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos on either dot?
Keefe: Their power play is as dangerous as any in the league. To me, it doesn’t really matter what the stats might say or anything like that. They are dangerous with their skill set, how they are set up, and also they have shown over many years the ability to come through for them at very important times.
It is an area of focus for us. We did see it quite a bit last season. We have some new guys this year. There is getting them familiar with what Dean is expecting and what we want them to be able to do.
The biggest thing is staying out of the penalty box and doing what we can to manage that situation. It certainly presents us with great challenges. We are going to have to be able to do a good job on the panty kill and also on the power play itself to make sure we are countering that.
Matthew Knies was working with the skills team today. How important is it for him to take advantage of that to be ready for however you use him in the weeks to come?
Keefe: I think it is important. Yesterday was an off-day, and now settling into Toronto — a place he hasn’t spent much time outside of development camp previously — and getting comfortable around here… I met with him today just to sort of reflect on the games that he has played, what he has learned, and what to expect going forward in terms of the competition.
He is still a guy who is adjusting to the league. It is a chance for me to spend some time with him and for him to go on the ice and work on some of the things that we had talked about. He will get a chance to get his first real practice tomorrow.
All of these things are really important for him. He has done a very good job of managing it all to this point.
How is Matt Murray progressing?
Keefe: He is progressing well. He has been skating today. I am not sure what number of skates this was, but he was skating when we were away as well. He is making progress.
How about Erik Gustafsson?
Keefe: He had a good day today. We are expecting him to be at practice tomorrow.
And Sam Lafferty?
Keefe: He is still not back with the group today, but he is traveling back today. We expect him here tomorrow morning.