The Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning skated at Amalie Arena on Thursday morning.
For the second straight season, Leafs centre Auston Matthews has been nominated for the Hart Trophy.
“The way he plays the game is unique and special,” said defenseman Morgan Riley. “The work ethic that he puts in both during the season and off-season really sets the tone. I don’t think that he takes anything for granted. He goes out there and earns it … When he’s doing his thing it’s hard not to follow and play hard.”
Matthews put forward an MVP-type performance in Game 5 on Tuesday. He scored the game-winning goal late in the third period. Matthews also led all players with seven hits.
“His all-around game is as good as anybody’s in the league, so it’s not surprising,” said Leafs captain. John Tavares. “He’s going to play them hard and compete. They’re making it hard on him to earn his ice and his opportunity, so good for him to play them hard and work for his own ice. He’s a catalyst, a leader for us.”
It will be harder to earn ice in Tampa where Jon Cooper owns the last-change advantage and can get Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli and Victor Hedman out against Matthews. Toronto’s top line has failed to score at even strength during the two games here during the series.
“If they play the way they did the other night that will take them a long way,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “Auston, in particular, 200 feet of the ice, the way he’s skating and competing and winning pucks back, that really goes a long way.”
Matthews has been much more productive at home during his playoff career. He has 13 goals in 19 home games, but just three goals in 18 games when the other coach has last-change advantage.
So, how does his line breakthrough in Game 6 in Tampa?
“We need to just try to attack,” said Matthews. “We need to be good in both ends of the ice, but just attacking and being physical. They’re going to try to neutralize us, try to be above us defensively and stuff and we got to be really good defensively as well so we can transition those pucks into the O-zone.”
As for the Hart nomination, Matthews calls it a “big honor”, but the Arizona native wants to keep the focus on the task at hand.
“This is what we play and work so hard for,” he said. “It’s for moments like these.
The Leafs are 0-7 in the Matthews era when they have a chance to eliminate an opponent.
“We’re in a good mood,” said Matthews, who has one goal and two assists in those seven potential close-out games. “Everyone’s excited for the opportunity we have tonight… A really good opportunity for our group to grasp the moment.”
It was business as usual for the Leafs on Thursday morning. The team held a full skate, which is normal following a day off the ice, and there were no lineup changes.
“If anything, we have learned that you can’t get too focused on the fact that it’s an elimination game,” said Keefe. “All those things go without saying. You know what you’re playing in. You have to focus on the things you’ve done well in the series. You have to focus on continuing to get better in the series.”
The Leafs are 1-8 when leading a series in the past six years, including 0-2 against the Lightning this year.
“An opportunity to win and move on is big and we all realize that,” said Rielly. “We learned in the past what happens when you’re not able to do that.”
Toronto squandered a 3-1 lead last year against Montreal and a 3-2 lead against Boston in 2019.
Rielly, the longest-serving Leaf, is embracing the pressure.
“You want to be prepared, you want to enjoy it and just go out there and play and not be overthinking it,” Rielly said.
Keefe chatted with Mitch Marner on the ice before the skate started. His message to the star winger?
“Just play,” the coach revealed. “Have fun. You know, do what he’s been doing. I think he’s feeling really good about his game and his series so far, so just go out and do your thing.”
Marner is tied with Matthews for the team lead with seven points in the series. He picked up the primary assist on the game-winning goal on Tuesday.
Marner has two assists in the seven potential close-out games he’s played.
The Leafs made a change to the top power-play unit in Game 5 as Mark Giordano replaced Riley.
“With Gio’s shot, he’s a little more willing and programmed to just direct the puck at the net,” Keefe explained. “Morgan, all season, has been more of a distributor for us at the top there.”
The Leafs have connected on 16.7 per cent of their chances in the series (4 for 24), which is down from 27.3 per cent in the regular season when they led the NHL.
“Getting clean looks has been a challenge,” Keefe acknowledged, “but we’ve found a way to score consistently pretty. When you’re getting one power-play goal a game, you’ll take that. When you get power plays early in games, you’d like to see it strike and build momentum for us.”
An early power-play goal propelled the Leafs to a Game 3 win in Tampa, but Toronto struggled on the man advantage early in Game 5.
“When your power play is not going it tends to draw attention to every other area and then you feel like your whole game’s not there,” Keefe said.
The Lightning have only faced elimination once during their two Stanley Cup runs. Tampa beat the New York Islanders 1-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final last year.
“If we limit a little bit of the self-destruction on our part it will give ourselves a chance win,” Cooper said. “Can’t guarantee we’ll win, but we’re definitely going to show up tonight, I’ll tell you that.”
“Systems are kind of taken out of it at this point,” said third-line centre Nick Paul. “We know what they’re going to do, they know what we’re going to do, so it just comes down to our will against theirs.”
Paul had four shots, including a breakaway, in Game 5 but couldn’t beat Jack Campbell. Paul isn’t planning any changes. The former Ottawa Senator is not superstitious.
“Can’t let that mess with my head,” he said. “Had some good chances and, in my mind, it’s just bound to go in at some point. So, just waiting for the bounces.”
Paul broke his stick on the first shot he took on Thursday morning.
“I thought that was the one, so I guess not,” he said of the faulty twig with a smile. “Hopefully it’s good luck.”
Lines at Leafs skate:
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Mikheyev – Tavares – Kerfoot
Nylander – Kampf – Engvall
Spezza – Blackwell – Kase
Simmonds, Clifford, Anderson
Rielly – Lyubushkin
Muzzin – Brodie
Giordano – Holl
Sandin – Liljegren
Lines at Lightning skate:
Palat – Stamkos – Kucherov
Cirelli – Point – Killorn
Hagel – Paul – Colton
Maroon – Bellemare – Perry
Hedman – Cernak
McDonagh – Bogosian
Sergachev – Foote/Rutta