Sheldon Keefe’s goal this week is to maintain a balancing act.
With Game 1 of the Maple Leafs’ first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens not until Thursday, the head coach will be able to teach a course in proper scheduling once the opening faceoff finally arrives at Scotiabank Arena.
“It’s probably a little more time than you would like, but it’s a manageable amount,” Keefe said. “We want to make sure our game is right and that our guys are feeling good going in.
“These types of weeks usually get crowded with meetings and discussions and things of that nature. This is a little bit different, given we’re playing an opponent that we’re very familiar with. But the practices themselves will be important and we’ll get things ramped up again. The guys are excited to officially put an end to the regular season and and get on to the next phase.
“There’s lots of time to sort through the information and making sure we’re delivering the most appropriate pieces.”
The Leafs will be back at the Ford Performance Centre for practice on Sunday after taking a day off on Saturday. The players will get one more day off before the opener.
It goes without saying the power play has to find some traction in the coming days. The Leafs are 16th at 20%, which is poor considering the talent that goes over the boards when the opposition takes a penalty.
Keefe will also want to keep seeing more of the team’s improvement defensively.
The Leafs ended their 56-game schedule with 132 goals for at five-on-five, and 95 against; last season, in 70 games, they had 158 for and 157 against.
After the finale in Winnipeg on Friday night, veteran Jason Spezza said the Leafs were built for the playoffs.
“We’ve gone through some hardships as a group, I think there’s guys in the room that feel like we have a lot to prove come playoff time after last year,” Spezza said. “We’ve been a hungry team since losing to Columbus and it’s our time to show that we’ve matured as a group.”
START HIM UP
Late Friday night, goaltender Jack Campbell wouldn’t have said he was starting in Game 1 if his mouth was full of it.
Though the majority of observers realize it makes the most sense for Campbell to be in net ahead of Frederik Andersen to begin the series, Campbell toed the team line after the Leafs lost against the Jets.
“I’m excited for whatever comes my way and whatever role that is,” Campbell said. “I’m excited about the team we have and the camaraderie.
“It’s going to be an absolute battle out there, but we’re prepared and it’s going to be a lot of fun. We can’t wait.”
Campbell has no playoff games on his National Hockey League resume. With the way he played this season — he set an NHL record with 11 wins in his first 11 decisions, and finished with a record of 17-3-2 — that shouldn’t matter.
“If anything, it’ll just be even more exciting,” Campbell said of having no playoff experience. “I already enjoy playing the game as it is and the next step is the playoffs, so if my number is called, I’ll be ready to go and embrace the opportunity.”
If you’re looking for experience, the Leafs’ fourth line has some to spare.
Unless there’s a change of mind on the part of Keefe, the expectation is Spezza will be between Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds.
In 308 Stanley Cup playoff games, the trio has 224 points.
“Me and Jumbo have played together quite a bit in the last few weeks and that has been great, getting a chance to have some chemistry,” Spezza said. “Simmer’s a guy who can score goals, so we feel like we can be a good line.
“We know there could be changes throughout playoffs and you have to always be ready to move around, but we feel like we can be a line that creates energy and play with some poise with the puck.”
In their final game of the qualifying round against Columbus last August, the Leafs had a fourth line of Pierre Engvall centring Kyle Clifford and Spezza.
The Canadiens are returning to fuller health, and though defenceman Shea Weber did not practise on Saturday, coach Dominique Ducharme said he was “very confident” the team’s captain will recover from an upper-body injury to play in Game 1. Among the vital Canadiens who practised as they make their way back from injury were Brendan Gallagher (thumb), Carey Price (concussion) and Phillip Danault (concussion) … Gallagher lamented that the first series between the Leafs and Canadiens in 42 years will be played in empty arenas. “You’re really sad that fans can’t be in the building for this,” Gallagher said. “I have been part of this rivalry for nine years and it never gets old. The fans are so passionate, they’re so excited. It’s going to be awesome for us as players to be a part of. We’re going to feel the fans’ emotion. It’s going to be really emotional, it’s going to be intense, competitive, it’s going to be fun to watch for sure, but to have fans in the building and create that little bit of atmosphere would make it that much better.”