Sheldon Keefe, playoff press conference

Ahead of Game 3, Sheldon Keefe discussed the latest on William Nylander, the physicality of the series, Mitch Marner’s production through two games, and the work in progress on the penalty kill.

Morning Skate Lines – Apr. 24

Why did Auston Matthews remain off the ice this morning?

Keefe: We just decided to keep him off. He took the option. He is good to go tonight.

What are the chances William Nylander will play tonight?

Keefe: There is a chance. He was still out there getting in work. It depends on how he responds. We’ll take it from there.

What have you liked about how the team has dealt with Nylander’s absence and the trickle-down effect on the lineup?

Keefe: We have been happy with it. The Holmberg line and the Kampf line have given us really good minutes. That is really important. You can only lean on your top guys so much. You need the depth to come through.

At the same time, it is not surprising. The Kampf line had been good for us for quite some time now. Robertson and Holmberg had been doing a really good job for us down the stretch. Jarnkrok, next to Reavo, is our most experienced playoff player. Even though he has missed a bunch of time — and it is tough to come back at this time of the year — you feel better about it given the level of experience he has and the type of player that he is. He gives you everything he has. We have been happy with it that way.

There is the special teams part of it as well. We made some adjustments from Game 1 to Game 2. We were happy with how it looked in Game 2. That is really it.

I have been asked the question a few times about how we adjust without Willy. You really don’t. You just keep pressing on. Our game plan, when Willy comes back in the lineup, does not change. How you need to play and what is required to compete and win at this time of the year is the same no matter who is in or out.

What do you expect tonight, in terms of keeping the momentum going and from the crowd atmosphere?

Keefe: The atmosphere will be great here at home. It is a great atmosphere down in Boston with playoffs. You are excited for that.

In terms of the game and our team, we expect to continue doing what we have been doing. We have to continue to embrace the things we have done really well here and clean up the things that we haven’t done well while recognizing each shift and game is going to continue to get harder. Boston is going to push back really hard tonight. We will have to be ready for that.

We liked our game a lot the other night, but there was not a lot between the two teams there. We will have to be really good again tonight, clearly.

What is the key to playing against Brad Marchand, knowing you want to be physical with him but that he has drawn a couple of penalties in the series?

Keefe: You just have to be smart. You have to recognize the moment and the player or players you are playing against. They are very good at making it very clear there has been an infraction. We have to manage that for sure.

The first two games had between 100 and 110 hits. Usually, this tapers off as the series goes on. Is it a matter of players tiring or of emotions reducing?

Keefe: It is a bit of both. Fatigue is certainly a factor. It is very difficult to sustain that over time. It is why you don’t see it in the regular season nearly to that level. You know you have to play again and again and again. This is why, in a lot of cases, the first round is the most physical and the hardest to get through. Everybody is fresh and on a pretty even playing field. Emotions are still fresh and high. It is certainly a trend that you see.

That said, I don’t see that changing in this series here any time soon. Both teams are pushing hard and forechecking well. There is not a lot of time or space out there. I have liked how we have handled that through two games. We are going to have to continue to be physical ourselves and play through contact at the same time.

You praised Mitch Marner for his contributions defensively. Are you at all concerned about the offensive production of Marner (zero points) and his line?

Keefe: If you asked me after Game 1 when we lost, I would say we need more goals. In Game 2, we had enough goals to win the hockey game. Mitch plays over 20 minutes and is an integral piece of the game for us. He has done a terrific job with the matchups.

I don’t get too worked up about the points stuff. If Bert lets the puck fall down another foot and then hits it in the net, [Marner] has an assist and makes the whole play happen. I don’t get too caught up in that sort of stuff.

We need to win hockey games. The other night, we had enough to win. Mitch, John, and Knies did a really good job. As series and playoffs go on, everyone gets their time and their moment. Mitch has come through for us offensively in so many ways in the past and found ways to produce. He will do it again.

What I like — not just about Mitch and his line, but even with Auston and his line — is that there was not a lot of difference between the first and second games. They were very good in both games. The puck went in twice. We had those chances — Auston rips it off the bar, and Max puts it in — in Game 1 as well. Maybe there wasn’t as clean of a breakaway as Auston had the other night, but Jarnkrok was in alone. Tavares was in alone in Game 1.

These things have happened and will happen through the playoffs. Some nights, one line does it. Some nights, another line is going to do it. But our team game has been really good, and none of our players through Game 1 and Game 2 have cheated the game or gone outside of what we need them to do. Because of that, we have played the best defensive hockey we have played all season long.

Mitch is our most reliable and consistent defensive player. He will continue to be that. He will make plays when they are available.

What is your comfort level with the last change at home?

Keefe: We will see what the lineup looks like tonight, but we were pretty good with how the forward matchups went on the road. We were pretty good with how they worked out. Both teams are top six/bottom six, and you have to be smart about how you manage it and get outside of that.

They really focused on Auston and his line with how they utilized their defense. We will be able to manage that a little bit better at home and make it a little more difficult for them. At the same time, that line has been doing really well. We have to manage the matchups accordingly so that we are not chasing one to get something favourable over here while exposing ourselves on the other side of it — especially with the way we have been playing without different people.

The team has given up three power-play goals against in the first two games. Five different forwards and five different defensemen have been on the ice for the PKs. When the players change that much, does it tell you the structure needs work or that the circumstances just happened?

Keefe: I would say there is some circumstance inside of that. If you look at it, in Game 2, we got scored on pretty quickly early on in the kill. When you are early in the kill, you are going to have certain players on the ice. If you look at Game 1, the first power-play goal they scored happened over a minute into the kill, so you will have different people on. The third one happened with under 20 seconds left. Different people are going to be on the ice at different times there. That is part of your regular rotations.

The goals themselves happen for different reasons. A lot of it speaks to us as we have been all season—chasing consistency and trusting it. We got a huge goal with the game on the line the other night. Hopefully, it is a big step for us in the series to be confident and assertive.

If you look at the goal the other night, we did a really good job of getting through pressure and getting the puck back, but then we had some miscommunication and didn’t get the clear. It ended up in our net. We need to clean up little things like that. We have shown down the stretch of the regular season—and the other night with the game on the line—that when we are assertive and confident, we can do the job. We have to get to that.