Sheldon Keefe, pre-game
Sheldon Keefe, pre-game

Ahead of Saturday’s game in Colorado, Sheldon Keefe discussed the team’s improvements defensively during the six-game winning streak, Joseph Woll’s successful first start of his conditioning stint, and the challenge against the Avalanche.

Jared Bednar was saying that he doesn’t think the Leafs get enough credit for their play on the defensive side of the puck during the recent winning stretch. What have you liked about the defensive play of your group? 

Keefe: The guys have been committed to it. Our pursuit and pressure on the puck have gotten to be way more consistent and the way we would like it to be; it’s been consistent throughout the lineup in all three zones. That has really helped us.

We have defended the way we want to at different points in the season, but we just haven’t been able to put it together consistently for whatever reason. The guys have really been buying in for the last little while. We are going to have to continue that.

This is going to be our toughest test of this trip for sure. It is a much deeper group than we saw the last time we played Colorado. We know what they are capable of, especially in this building.

How much were all of the missing bodies for the St. Louis game at the start of the winning streak an attention grabber for the group?

Keefe: Morgan left the lineup, and then there were injuries and illnesses that we were dealing with. The guys had no choice but to play better if we were going to have success. We had to be that much more committed and consistent within the team structure.

I have really felt that our team is growing a lot. That is a big part of it. This is the end of the long road trips for us for the regular season. I have felt — on this trip, in particular — that the group is really coming together closer than it has been at any point in the season.

That is maybe something that has been really understated: how many changes and different people were brought in combined with the number of players who are in their first year in the league. We had expected it would be a group that would get better as the year moves along.

We are in a good place now, but as we know, the NHL is a very difficult and demanding place. We just have to stay humble and keep working. We are going to be put to the test today. We just have to continue growing our game.

Is there something specific that you are seeing in terms of the growth of the group?

Keefe: Our commitment away from the puck and how often we have gotten numerical advantages on the ice. That is something that we have really strived for. It is a difficult thing to do. It takes commitment. It takes attention to detail. It requires taking care of the puck. I think we are in sync right now more than we have been.

When you see Auston Matthews piling up obscene offensive numbers, can you appreciate it as a coach, or is it business as usual?

Keefe: I can appreciate it, of course. We are very fortunate to have a player of that calibre on the team.

Obviously, he is not the only one. We have other special guys who make special plays and help our team. As we have seen, our team has gotten better the more that our entire team game has improved.

Auston leads the way for us in ways that we know, are obvious, and show up on the scoresheet, but he leads the way in so many other categories that help set the standard for our team: defending, taking on touch matchups, and still finding ways to succeed.

That is what we need Auston to continue to do: lead the way and help our team win consistently.

How encouraging is it that Joseph Woll had such a strong start with the Marlies considering how long he has been off?

Keefe: It looks like had a great day yesterday. I haven’t spent a lot of time digesting it today. I have just been focused on what has been here, but it sounds like he has had a really good week and a good showing yesterday.

In terms of the plan from here, it will be up to Tre to sort out as we return home, but there is nothing imminent in terms of the discussions I’ve had today.

Why have the Avalanche been such a tough out in their own building this season?

Keefe: They are just a really good team that plays well and knows how to win. They have elite players who make you pay when you make mistakes. They don’t make many themselves.

How different is the preparation when you don’t have a practice day and it is followed by an earlier start?

Keefe: It is a little different. Normally, after taking a day off after the back-to-back, you would get a morning skate in. The schedule makes it harder, so it is unique in that sense.

We had good meetings this morning. It has been a good trip to this point. We just want the guys to continue to build on what they have done well.

Has there been a conscious decision to give them more time away from the rink to rest?

Keefe: The nature of the schedule is that it started with a game on the road on Monday. You travel for a back-to-back, and then you go again here. You have funny start times in there. We have played at 12 p.m., 8 p.m., 7 p.m., and now 5 p.m.

Coming into the trip, we made the decision not to practice. There was the potential for a practice on either Tuesday or yesterday, but ultimately, we decided that rest is most important.