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

After practice on Wednesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the decision to healthy scratch Michael Bunting after the end of his suspension, Matthew Knies’ impact on the team so far, and the opportunity to close out the series Thursday night on home ice.

Practice Lines – April 26

What led you to keep rolling with the same lineup despite Michael Bunting’s eligibility to return?

Keefe: We are just comfortable rolling with the same group that has been working here and has won three games in a row. That is it.

What is your message to Bunting?

Keefe: Just to stay ready. Obviously, his situation opened the door for someone like Matthew Knies to come in. He did a terrific job for us.

The chemistry with the rest of the group just makes it… It is not an easy decision because Bunts has played really good hockey for us and has been an important guy for our team, but really, the message is that he will get back in. It is just not going to be tomorrow.

What has allowed Knies to make the impact that he has right away?

Keefe: Very good hockey player. It is really that simple. In addition to the talent, he has confidence and some swagger to him. He just goes out and plays.

Where can you see the confidence from Knies the most?

Keefe: Just with the puck. He doesn’t throw it away. Sometimes, he is hanging onto it a little bit too long, which is an adjustment for a player to make, but you like that he is skating with it.

He plays with his head up. He has created some create scoring opportunities for others because he plays that way.

He is not intimidated in any way by the opposition because of the physicality or the pace. It doesn’t affect his game and his mindset. It makes you very comfortable playing him.

What do you like about the way the bottom six is put together now?

Keefe: Because of what I do like about the top and bottom six, it is part of the reason for the decision with Bunting and maintaining that. Again, we have been trying to establish something where we are comfortable playing all four lines, we can really get going, and we can really get playing.

That was part of the intention going into the series. We thought we were in a good spot that way. We have had to adjust along the way, which is what we had to do the other night. The players responded well.

We can always make other adjustments if needed, but we like the group the way that it finished the other night.

William Nylander played only 14 minutes and change in Game 4, and yet he left with three points. How do you balance what a guy produces versus how much time he gets?

Keefe: It is a balance. For me, it is about trying to put Willy in positions to succeed and utilizing his strengths while protecting some of the areas where he is maybe not doing as well or playing as well. When Willy is at his best, you don’t have to protect as much, and you can just go.

On the road, in particular, that wasn’t the case necessarily. He is still a very important guy for us. It is important for me not to lose him. He can still provide a lot in very important moments. He did that the other night.

Is it about defensive play or engagement?

Keefe: They go hand in hand, I would say.

What is your sense of where Ilya Samsonov is mentally? The pucks have gone in, but he has stayed one save ahead of Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Keefe: That is the key, especially in Game 3 where he couldn’t afford to give up that additional goal. When you get into overtime, you can’t afford to give anything up. He gave us a chance to win that game.

He has been batling and competing, which we come to expect from him. Obviously, it has helped us a great deal.

How big is home-ice advantage tomorrow in a close-out situation?

Keefe: It helps. We are excited to play in front of our fans is the big thing. There is that. There is some of the matchup stuff and what have you.

We are obviously comfortable here. We got two wins on the road, but certainly, coming off of Game 2 — and how we played with the emotion and energy in that game — was important for us. We hope to get back to some of that.

What is the key to a successful start to the game? Have you been happy with the way the team has started games?

Keefe: I think we started fine on the road in both games. In Game 3, in particular,  I thought we started pretty well.  In the first rotation of the game, you’d like it to be clean through the neutral zone and get onto the other half of the ice.

Depending on how you define start… You can look at it as the first period. You can look at it as the first rotation for each line. You can look at it as the very first shift. You can look at it as up until the first TV timeout.

For us, we just like to get control of the game, whether that is territorially or to score first. You just want to be feeling good about where you are at.

You have been in this position to close out a series a few times before. Do you feel a difference in the team this time around?

Keefe: Yeah, I do.

First of all, the schedule being what it is today is unique with the day off to travel and then a practice day today, which — in a lot of ways — is a chance to regroup, get out, and practice some of the things that we have been talking about over the last number of days that we haven’t necessarily been able to practice because of the schedule and energy of the players.

In a lot of ways, it has allowed us to unplug from the series for a moment to be able to refocus and recharge for tomorrow. That in and of itself is unique and provides some good perspective as we really prepare for tomorrow, which is to just focus on our game and to play well — not on any of the outside stuff that doesn’t help the situation. We just have to focus on playing a good hockey game.

Half of this roster wasn’t here last year. If you go back to the Montreal series, it’s probably around 60% of the roster. Should this team even be wearing what has happened in the past when there is so much change personnel-wise?

Keefe: I think the core, of course, has remained the same. Those guys have been through a lot together — myself included.

That is real. That is felt. I think there is growth inside of that. There is motivation and focus because of those things.

I also think the guys that are fresh, new, and have come in… By and large, everyone who has come has brought with them some great experience, whether that is actual championship pedigree, playing deep into the playoffs, or playing in the league a really long time.

We have great experience without our group all the way through, including the depth. I think that brings a lot to a team. It is part, again, of the different type of feel around the group.

Matt Murray was putting in some work today. What’s the latest on him?

Keefe: He is making progress to the point where he is on the ice. He has been working mostly in recovery mode on his own. Now, he is starting to take shots from players in more game-like situations. It is steady progress there.