Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach

Ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Lightning, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed Auston Matthews’ 70-goal chase, the importance of home-ice advantage, and Nick Robertson’s development.

How much do you think Auston Matthews’ 70-goal pursuit could fuel the group down the stretch? Is there a balance between wanting him to achieve it and looking for him too much?

Keefe: There is some excitement there for Auston and the type of year that he has had, but I don’t think it is overdone or anything like that. I don’t get that feeling. You can see guys looking for him on the ice, but generally, it is not a bad idea to look for him.

You have to recognize that it is going to be part of the deal, but you don’t want to change your game or your focus. That is not the focus for me. In talking to Auston, it is not the focus for him. He wants to finish the season strong, feel good, and have energy through the last stretch ahead of the playoffs.

That is really our team’s goal: to have our game in order and be as healthy and rested as possible as we finish this last push.

Is there a fine line between everyone wanting Matthews to reach 70 goals and getting him the rest he might need to get ready for the playoffs?

Keefe: There is for sure. I am not concerned about 70 goals at all. I am concerned about having him on our team ready to go for the playoffs.

As we saw the other night, he got two in the last game. Those were two important goals for us in the game. He is going to contribute that way, and that is what he has done all season for us. He is an important part of our team, but it is not our focus or my focus at all.

It is commonplace in the NFL, but do you think rest down the stretch is something you want to look at ahead of the playoffs?

Keefe: If you look at how we have handled it in the past couple of years, it is a little bit different now. We haven’t been able to play with our group very much due to the injuries we’ve had and five players being out. They are going to start trickling back into our lineup.

Having our group in order is important. The more reps we can get with our power play intact is going to be a priority for us, too. We will manage all of that.

I think Auston’s minutes have been in a really good place. That is important for me. I am monitoring that. It is a balance of rest and also staying sharp and keeping guys in game mode. That is really important, too.

As you know, playoffs are hard and difficult. Emotions are high. You don’t want to slip too far the other way or have to climb your way out of that.

What have you seen from Nick Robertson in the recent stretch where he has regularly been in the lineup?

Keefe: He has just continued what he has done for most of the season. He has given us everything he has on every shift. He works very hard. He is competing.

He is scoring when he gets his opportunities. I think he recognizes opportunities are harder to come by, but when he has gotten them, he has made good on them. If you just look at the last two goals that he scored, he has scored goals where it is kind of his only scoring chance of the game. They go in. That is the ability that he has.

That is great to see, and it is a great contributor to our team, but there is a lot more that goes into it shift-to-shift and play-to-play. You have to be able to carry play. You have to be relied on. You have to be able to find your way through the rest of the depth chart.

There are a lot of guys on our team, and we will make decisions as we go. We will see where our lineup is at and we will see where our health is at.

I guess I would put all of our young players into that category. We are a team that hopes to compete for a Stanley Cup, and we have four first-year forwards who have played quite a bit in our lineup. I don’t think many teams would have that be the case.

Those guys have grown a lot within our team, and that has been a real positive. They have taken steps.

Nick has taken a significant step this season. The first one was that he stayed healthy. That is a significant step. I am not sure exactly where he’s at (in games played), but it feels like he has gotten more experience this season than he has in any other season he’s played in pro hockey. That in and of itself is a big development for him. He is finding ways to produce. He is learning the league. He has moved around our lineup. He has played up and down. He has been out of the lineup. He has come back in. He has learned and dealt with a lot.

He has taken a big step. That is really important. He becomes a good option for us in this playoff, but perhaps more importantly, he becomes a guy who is going to grow within our team in the big picture.

Now that you are three points back of Florida with games in hand, how much does home-ice advantage matter compared to how it used to? Do you worry more about your team game being where it needs to be entering the playoffs versus whatever seed you finish in?

Keefe: It is more focusing on your team and getting prepared. You see where chips fall. We were in this situation last season as well. It was pretty similar.

I don’t think we saw it as much of anything to look at or aspire to a few weeks ago. It was not even within reach, but things have evened out a little bit.

I don’t think it changes our mindset. We have been good in both places. We have had home ice in the past. It is really about who is most prepared to play and who has their game in order when the time comes. Wherever the games are played, we will be ready.

Is there a chance Joel Edmundson could practice on Friday?

Keefe: I think there is potential for that. We will see where he is at today. This might have been his third or fourth time on the ice, but it was the first time with our group. He is progressing well. It is just a matter of how he handles each day.

I don’t see him as an option for Saturday.