The Maple Leafs and New York Rangers held optional skates at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner took their chemistry to the next level last season. Now, they're together again on Toronto's top line.
"It's pretty obvious they feed off each other," said veteran defenceman Mark Giordano. "They haven't played on a line lately, but you see it on the power play still."
"They enjoy playing with one another," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "In practice, they enjoy working on new things and trying to build that chemistry a little bit. They continue to work at it, continue to get better. It's always fun to be out there with them."
After an ugly first period on Monday night, Sheldon Keefe reunited Matthews and Marner at the start of the second period against the New York Islanders.
"That really sparked our team," the coach said. "The way those two started to move the puck around just brought the game to life. That's the type of impact they can have on our team in terms of really giving a boost and energizing the group."
Keefe didn't plan on keeping Matthews and Marner on different lines for so long. He split up the dynamic duo on Nov. 12. Marner paired up with John Tavares while Matthews skated beside William Nylander as the Leafs went on a 22-6-5 run.
"Here, of late, things have not gone as well for both groups," Keefe said. "Individual players have maybe had some moments of greatness but, to me, the groups haven't gone as well. When you make a switch and both groups really hit, I think it's natural to just stay with it."
Nylander had two goals and two assists in the second period on Monday. Tavares had a goal and an assist.
Matthews picked up a goal in the third period, but Marner saw his 20-game home point streak come to an end.
"There's always room to grow for sure," Keefe said of the top-line connection. "You just look for those guys to continue to play well individually with their own game and their own pace and their own habits, and then the chemistry and being able to find each other on offence, that should come together over time."
"They push one another to a certain degree," Rielly noted. "They're both guys that want to be in that conversation with the best players in the world and they deserve to be and they're going to continue to push for that. Having each other is great for both them."ContentId(1.1911068): 'Brought the game to life': Leafs expect boost from Matthews-Marner magic
The Rangers beat the Leafs 3-1 on Dec. 15 at Madison Square Garden in the first meeting between the teams this season.
"Just got to score more than one goal," Keefe said. "We played a good hockey game when we were down there. Looking back at it, we did a lot of good things in that game, we just didn't score enough."
Marner’s franchise record point streak of 23 games ended that night in New York. Igor Shesterkin stopped 22 of 23 shots to get the win. He is 4-0-1 with a .935 save percentage against the Leafs.
"You know he's always got your back," said Rangers defenceman K'Andre Miller. "The guy is flopping around the net making unreal save after unreal save. His second-chance effort is [second] to none in the league. He really puts that 'No Quit in New York' [slogan] on his back and represents it well."
Ilya Samsonov is 3-0-1 with a .947 save percentage since replacing Matt Murray in the second period of the Jan. 17 game against the Florida Panthers.
"When he's feeling it, he's reading the play so well," said Giordano. "You can just see it. It's not just straight shots. It's deflections, tips and seam plays, he's there before the puck gets there. You saw last game, he reads the play so well he got an assist because of it."
Samsonov will make a fourth straight start on Wednesday.
"You can see that confidence and, in a position that's that important, when they have that confidence the whole team feeds off it," Giordano said.
Goalie coach Curtis Sanford told Keefe that Samsonov’s process is the best it's been all year.
"He's showing me clips [and] the puck doesn't even get to the net, but if it got to the net, he's in perfect position and his depth is right and he's tracking the puck well," said Keefe. "He's ready and he's focused. It fuels the big saves [when] your process is right. If the puck's not coming, or maybe you're not getting a lot of shots or getting a lot of chances but your process is really focused and very sharp, when the chance comes, you'll take care of it and make it look easy. That's what we've seen from him as he's gotten in a rhythm here and that's, of course, encouraged us to keep him going."
Samsonov is 1-3-1 with an .861 save percentage against the Rangers.
Mika Zibanejad has seven goals in five games against Samsonov. What stands out about the Swedish sniper?
"Good shot, long hair," said deadpan defenceman Timothy Liljegren. "Their top line there has some good chemistry as well. Kind of the same thing [as Matthews and Marner], Artemi Panarin a good passer, Zibanejad a really good shot, so have to stay on top of them."ContentId(1.1911057): 'He's reading the play so well': Samsonov's streak energizes Leafs
Samsonov, Giordano, fourth-line centre Pontus Holmberg and rookie winger Bobby McMann are the only regulars who took the ice on Wednesday morning.
"Morning skates like this you really want to put it on them in terms of what they need to have themselves ready," said Keefe. "We use the term a lot that the morning skate is optional and the game is mandatory."
"For me, it's like part of a warm-up," said Giordano. "It's something I've done for most of my career. I just don't want to change it up too much."
The Leafs are in the middle of a busy part of their schedule with seven games in a 13-day stretch, which wraps Sunday.
"We had a shorter practice yesterday," Keefe pointed out. "The break is approaching so that's a good thing that the guys can see on the horizon here. Yet you still want to make sure you're not just saying, 'Hey, let's empty the tank all the way through here and then the break we can recover.' We still have to be smart with how we're managing this."
Giordano, at 39 the NHL's oldest skater, has been taking some skills sessions off of late to maintain his energy levels. The Leafs usually hold a 30-minute development session before the main practice, which often runs between 30 and 45 minutes.
"It's a balance," Giordano said. "You want to get into a good rhythm in the season. But, for me, it's just picking my spots now. I'm coming around to the idea of being smarter when it comes to things like practice days and picking between skills [sessions] and practice or being out there the whole time. I guess we'll talk more and more as the season goes on, but as a player you want to be in that rhythm where you feel you're best during the games, so I got to find that."
The Leafs will take Thursday off and Giordano has been taking full advantage of those days away from the rink. He's also locked in on nutrition and has been scaling back in the gym.
"Little modifications," he said. "I mean, you're definitely not lifting like you were 20 anymore ... It's all about the game. You just got to do whatever you can to feel great in the game."
The Leafs have dealt with a series of injuries to defencemen this season and Giordano has stepped up in a big way averaging 19:38 of ice time per game and leading the team in blocked shots.
"He's probably been one of the most consistent guys in the NHL over the last bunch of years and continues to impress even with his age," said Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk, who played with Giordano in Calgary. "Age is one thing, but he always comes into camp in pretty much the best shape on the team. So, I don't think age really matters with a guy like that. He can play forever."
Giordano is also efficient on the ice.
"He just manages the game really well," observed Rielly. "Having a lot of experience in the league, he knows how to play the game and he's picked up tricks during his career. Really doesn't chase the game. He's calm. He has a good feel for when things are going well and when things need to change. That comes with experience, and he's got that for sure. He just has that self-confidence out there that he's in the right spots doing the right thing at the right time and that goes a long way."ContentId(1.1911053): Giordano, 39, is 'coming around to the idea' of workload management
Rangers coach Gerard Gallant likes how 2020 first-overall pick Alexis Lafreniere responded to being a healthy scratch on Dec. 29.
"Last game was probably one of his better games," Gallant noted. "I tell people, 'I got no problem with the kid.' He's a 21-year-old kid, sometimes they need a little kick in the butt to get going again. He's been excellent. I like the kid. He's played great and taken another good step for us."
Lafreniere scored a goal and added an assist in Monday's win over the Florida Panthers. He's playing on the third line with 2019 second-overall pick Kaapo Kakko.
"I give them a lot of support," Gallant stressed. "I support both those kids. You do the best you can with them. They've both taken a big step. A lot of our media people don't think that at times. It frustrates me, but I think the kids are great. They're going to be good hockey players and sometimes it takes guys a little longer than other guys and that's the way it is."
Lafreniere and Kakko both play on New York's second power-play unit.
"They might get 30 seconds," Gallant acknowledges. "And then you go to New Jersey and see some of their young kids playing on their first unit because that's what they have. Jersey's taken a big step there this year with those kids. So, Lafreniere and [our] kids don't get the same amount of minutes and the same amount of power-play time as they do. I'm trying to win games every night. Our team's trying to win games and be a Stanley-Cup-contending team, so that's what we got to do. Sometimes those kids take the tough part of it, but that's hockey. I'm not going to sit Panarin and [Chris] Kreider and Zibanejad on the bench and play other people ahead of them."
Vitaly Kravtsov, 23, projects to be a healthy scratch on Wednesday.
"It's the same as the kids we're talking about," Gallant. "There's not a lot of room for some of those kids sometimes. He's played. He's worked hard. He's taken a step for us. I like the kid. He's done a good job, but score [more] when you're in for 20 games."
Kravtsov has three goals and three assists in 27 games this season.
Toronto native Will Cuylle has been called up from the American Hockey League and will make his NHL debut on Wednesday.
"Real exciting," said Gallant. "You know, his hometown. First NHL game. It's going to be outstanding for the kid. Hopefully he'll play real well and pop at least one goal."
At least one?
"Yeah, it'd be nice," Gallant said with a smile.
Cuylle would become the first Toronto native to make his NHL debut in the city for a team other than the Maple Leafs since Kirk Tomlinson of the MNS on Feb. 24, 1988.
Only one TOR native has made his debut in the city while playing for the Rangers: Jim Drummond on Jan. 9, 1945. https://t.co/iifUwz7NiR — NYR Stats & Info (@NYRStatsInfo) January 24, 2023 ContentId(1.1911097): Gallant frustrated with coverage of 'excellent' Lafrenière, NYR's rising stars
Tavares will play game No. 998 on Wednesday as he inches towards a big milestone moment on Sunday.
"It's a big thing," said Giordano, who played game No. 1,000 last March. "When you start looking at it and you start looking at the list at the guys who have played in 1,000, it's not a huge list and it's a hard thing to do. It was a very proud moment for myself and my family when I went through it, and I'm sure Johnny's looking forward to it. He has it circled, for sure, on his calendar."
Tavares is poised to become the 375th player to reach the four-digit club in NHL games played.
"He takes care of himself like nobody else," said Giordano. "He just puts the work in. I don't know how else you can explain it, but he puts the work in ... I know I'm older than him, but you can look up to guys like that."
At age 32, Tavares is putting forward another strong season. The Leafs captain has 21 goals and 26 assists in 48 games. He has made consistency his hallmark.
"The guy's been around a long time and it seems like he's played every game the same," observed Gallant. "He comes to compete both ways, a 200-foot player, great skill, great talent and he's a character, leader guy so he's a great NHL veteran."
And while Tavares has a strict regimen to stay fit, he's not afraid to try new things. For the first time in 15 years, he changed skating coaches in the summer.
"He stays true to himself in terms of his preparation and routines, how he takes care of himself, in the gym, his nutrition, his rest, all those things," Keefe said. "Yet at the same time he has recognized or embraced change or opportunities to improve. As he's gotten older, he's adapted."ContentId(1.1911054): 'He stays true to himself': Tavares stays step ahead of Father Time
Projected lines for Wednesday's game:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Jarnkrok - Tavares - Nylander
McMann - Kampf - Engvall
Kerfoot - Holmberg - Anderson
Rielly - Holl
Giordano - Liljegren
Sandin - Benn