Sheldon Keefe on an off-day in Boston

On an off-day on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the team’s growth throughout the series, the power play’s struggles, and preparation for Game 7.

Has Auston Matthews made any progress toward a return?

Keefe: Yeah, there has been progress. He skated again today, but there is no determination on his availability.

What is the confidence level of the group ahead of a series-deciding game tomorrow night?

Keefe: Confidence is high. We believe in our group. We have believed in our group all throughout this series and season. Our performance in the last two games has earned us even more confidence and another game on the schedule, but it doesn’t change the challenge. The challenge is still significant. The games in this series have been extremely tight. Game 7 will be no different.

What is your sense of Mitch Marner’s game? He is getting the tough matchups throughout the series. Do you sense he is close to an offensive breakthrough similar to Nylander’s?

Keefe: Mitch has made some plays and played well for us. That line with Domi and Bert has done a really good job for us. Mitch has made some plays in both Game 3 and Game 4 to help us offensively. In Game 5, he also made a bunch of plays and has been excellent defensively.

Everybody has their moments. As the series goes on, you get your opportunities to have moments, I should say. Game 7 is another opportunity for all of our players to have their moment, but do so within our team structure. That is the biggest thing: You can’t cheat the system and structure.

If you want to take Willy as an example, he came into the series and looked like a guy who was going to try to take the puck, do things on his own, and make things happen. That is not the way it works this time of year. You have to play within a team system and structure. When opportunities present themselves, you make good on them. That is really it.

If you look at Willy last night, he is on the puck up high, shoots the puck, and it goes off a leg and in. It is probably not how Willy dreams about scoring in the playoffs, but that is the way things happen. He gets a breakaway where Knies makes a great play and puts it on his stick for him.

These moments have come, like Auston in Game 2 with his moment. Mitch will have his as well. At the same time, our team has played really good, structured hockey, and Mitch hasn’t cheated the structure for one second. That in and of itself is a great thing and shows leadership.

Is there a correlation between a better structure and the desperation that was attached to the last two games?

Keefe: We have defended well. I like how we have defended in this series, even in the games that we have lost. It hasn’t been perfect, and last night wasn’t perfect. There were some times when they were getting in behind us for some looks, or we needed some saves or desperate [defending] to get sticks on pucks or block a shot. Our urgency and our defensive intensity have been really good and have been even better in the last couple of games. The players have responded well in that sense.

That is what it takes at this time of the year, especially when goals have been hard to come by. We talk about how “it takes what it takes.” If we have to win 1-0, we have to win 1-0. That is the way it is going to be. The guys have been committed to that and got rewarded with it. They have earned another chance to get at it in Game 7.

John Tavares’ effort has never been in question. What have you seen from him in the last few games?

Keefe: John has been really solid. He is another guy who has not cheated the system, the structure, or the things we are asking the team to do for one second. He has worked. He has competed. He made a big-time play to set up the overtime-winning goal that extended our season. There is a moment for John there.

Throughout the series, John has competed very well. He has had the tough matchups. He’s started in his own end a lot. He has taken on a lot for us and done a really good job. He is often playing against Pastrnak, and he has done a really good job there. I am happy with John all through the series.

Game 7 could come down to a power-play goal. Do you stick with it despite the results so far?

Keefe: Stick with it as opposed to? We are not going to decline the power play, no.

We have changed things a lot — some of it by design, some of it because we were forced to due to Willy being out of the lineup and Auston being out of the lineup. We have changed things each game.

Some of it comes down to execution. Things have been ballooned and magnified because we didn’t execute and score on clean looks earlier in the series. If you do that, all of a sudden, the numbers don’t look nearly as bad. I don’t answer questions about it every day. The players don’t think about it nearly as much.

It is a combination of giving the guys a really good recipe and a plan, making adjustments, and also showing confidence, faith, and belief. As you have seen during our five-on-five game — and I would put our penalty kill in that over the last two games as it hasn’t been tested or called upon a lot, but it has come through for us — you can see the confidence and belief. The power play doesn’t have that right now.

No better time for it to happen than Game 7. When you talk about moments, if the power play can come through for us in a situation like this, we will very quickly forget about anything that has happened beforehand.

Joseph Woll seems to be relishing the pressure of the situation. How does that impact the team and the locker room?

Keefe: It is part of giving the group confidence. He has come in at a time when the team has played better in front of him. He has been a big part of both wins, but the team has played really well in front of him and given him great opportunities. It is cohesive right now with the way the goaltender is playing and the way the group has played.

You talk about earning your confidence going into Game 7, and Joseph is a big part of that. As I have said, all we have done is earn ourselves another game on the schedule here. We have accomplished something and feel good about getting ourselves to this point, but all we have done is dig ourselves out of a hole we created for ourselves.

Now, the real test comes in Game 7—and a real opportunity. I am excited for our guys. The reality is that we have not accomplished nearly what we have set out to do. The greatest challenge lies ahead. The guys will be ready for it.

Tyler Bertuzzi said he was tired after the game, given the way the team is playing and winning. Is that part of the team learning what it takes to win in the playoffs?

Keefe: I absolutely believe that. We have seen tremendous growth in our team in these last couple of games. It is not just our team. We have a lot of new players here that weren’t here in the past. We have already talked about Mitch, John, and Willy, and the way they committed defensively.

It is hard to win in the playoffs. You have to commit to it every shift and every single game — not just how hard it is, but how you need to play, what is required, how you need to adjust to the game, and not always feel like you are going to have control and dictate the terms. The opposition is going to have a say. You have to be able to adapt and adjust to that.

I think we have seen tremendous growth. I liked our game in Game 1 and Game 2. I thought our process was really good. We didn’t get the result in Game 1, and we did in Game 2. We were disappointed in how the team responded in Game 3 and Game 4, and yet when challenged again, they did buy into it and got results. You see tremendous growth in that.

It is extremely hard and extremely tiring. You need depth. I don’t think there is enough appreciation for just how difficult it is. When our players come back to the bench, they are exhausted. You need depth. You have to be able to trust your third and fourth lines. They have to be able to give you shifts. At times, it is not going to be the ideal matchup, but they have to go out and do the job for you. They have. That has allowed us to use our bench and keep everybody as fresh as possible so they can dig into the tank and lay it out there. That is what is required at this time of the year.

To me, there has been slow progress for this team in the playoffs year over year over year. Even in this series, progress was slow, but progress is certainly there. We believe we are as prepared as we can be mentally for a Game 7. Now, we have to go out and execute against a very good team that, for the first time, is going to be as desperate as we are.

We haven’t accomplished anything other than an opportunity to continue to build our game and show how we have grown.