How the Maple Leafs are preparing to play Game 5 without Auston Matthews

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“It’s a forecheck drill,” Sheldon Keefe said to Mitch Marner at Toronto Maple Leafs practice on Monday morning. “It’s blue’s puck.”

Blue being the colour of Marner’s practice jersey. They were the line that was supposed to be forechecking, in other words.

It was a mostly quiet morning otherwise for the Leafs ahead of Game 5 on Tuesday and potential elimination from the playoffs. No smiles. No laughs. Not much chatter. And no sign of Auston Matthews, who left Game 4 after two periods with an illness he just can’t seem to shake.

Keefe said Matthews’ status for Game 5 had “yet to be determined” but the team is “hopeful” he can play. “Of course we’re hopeful that he’s available and feeling good and back to himself,” Keefe said. “That’s what we’re hopeful for.”

And so the Leafs are preparing to be without their best player with their season on the line.

Max Domi took Matthews’ spot at centre on the team’s No. 1 line during Monday’s practice and also took reps in his usual position on the No. 1 power-play unit.

William Nylander, meanwhile, moved into Marner’s right-wing spot on the second line with John Tavares and Matthew Knies.

This, it seems, is how the Leafs would line up if Matthews is unavailable to go on Tuesday night. (Timothy Liljegren is set to replace TJ Brodie on the back end.)

Line LW C RW





























There’s no understating how crippling Matthews’ absence would be in the biggest game of the season. He almost singlehandedly won Game 2 for the Leafs and is coming off a Hart Trophy-calibre regular season. He’s the best offensive and defensive player on the team.

“It’s not ideal to be without Auston Matthews,” Tavares said. “Obviously you’re talking about one of the best players in the world.”

And yet, the Leafs have also shown over the years, including this one, that they can pull together and win the odd game without him — or without some of their other top players, including Marner, Nylander (in that Game 2 win) and Morgan Rielly.

Matthews missed only one game during the regular season. He was unavailable because of illness, oddly enough, when the Leafs hosted Pittsburgh on Dec. 16. His team ripped the Penguins 7-0 that night anyway.

One combination that produced sparks: Domi, playing centre, alongside Marner. (The third forward on the line that night was Knies.)

Domi had a goal and two assists that night. Marner had two points himself.

That connection would explain, at least in part, why the Leafs opted not to, as they have in the past, promote Tavares into the top centre’s spot in Matthews’ potential absence.

“He’s done well with Mitch, he’s done well when we’ve had guys out,” Keefe said of Domi, who spent most of this season playing centre before shifting more recently to right wing. “Whether it was Auston or John, when they’ve been out, Max has played in that spot and he’s done a nice job for it.”

Tavares also has baked-in chemistry with Nylander, and there’s this: The Leafs would prefer that a Tavares-led unit goes head to head with David Pastrnak if they can help it rather than one fronted by Domi.

If there’s one thing that’s gone right for the Leafs this series, it’s the job Tavares’ line (with help from the pair of Simon Benoit and Jake McCabe) has done defensively against Pastrnak’s unit.

The downside of that work: The line hasn’t scored much at all, just one goal in Game 3 from Knies on a setup from Marner.

The Leafs will likely need more punch from that group if Matthews isn’t around — particularly from Nylander, a back-to-back 40-goal scorer who has 12 goals in his last 26 playoff games.

Nylander looked sluggish in his return to the lineup in Game 4 and was held off the scoresheet.

“Throughout the year, guys have been out of the lineup and I think we’ve rallied together each time,” he said. “If that’s the case then that’s what we’ll have to do.”

How much more Keefe can get that unit starting on offence on the road in Game 5 is uncertain. The big concern for the Leafs coach: Pastrnak.

Is he comfortable dropping any other line out there repeatedly for defensive zone faceoffs knowing Boston Bruins coach Jim Montgomery might pounce on a potential mismatch and drop Pastrnak out there?

He might have no choice but to risk it more often than he did in Games 1 and 2, if only to boost the chances of that line breaking through what Tavares described as the “layers” of defence the Bruins have around their net.

“I felt like last game they got a lot of sticks, a lot of bodies on pucks, and nothing was clean, even when you found ways to get into some good spots,” Tavares said. “You really gotta support each other really well, to be able to break through layers and pressure and be able to find the open areas and then obviously attack when the opportunities are there.”

Referring to Pastrnak, the Leafs captain said, “Obviously we know how dangerous he is offensively. You’re not trying to be overaggressive or high risk.”

If not Tavares’ line, the Leafs have to hope Marner can power the No. 1 unit in Matthews’ potential absence. Marner had a quiet Games 1-4 offensively while playing in a shutdown role against Pastrnak.

He still had a direct hand — a goal and a primary assist — on two of the Leafs’ six five-on-five goals in the series.

Playing on the top unit will free him up for many more offensive zone faceoffs and, playing with Domi, more opportunities to shoot the puck.

Marner has fewer five-on-five shots in this series (four) than Connor Dewar (five). Not enough.

If Matthews comes around and plays in Game 5, Keefe has an interesting choice of where exactly to use Domi.

Option 1: Keep him with Matthews, a look the Leafs coach hasn’t budged from for weeks now. That would require, potentially, moving Marner and Nylander around somehow.

Option 2: Move Domi down into the 3C spot, keep Marner with Matthews and look for more threatening depth with a possible third line of Nick Robertson, Domi and Calle Järnkrok.

Domi occupied Matthews’ usual spot on the right flank of the No. 1 unit at Monday’s practice. More interesting is the apparent adjustment — which will presumably stick even if Matthews plays — that will see Marner move to the bumper position.

There’s Nazem Kadri-like potential there for Marner — that is a weaker shooter pouncing on quick shots from the slot. Though he hasn’t played in that spot much at all, Marner should get juicier shooting opportunities from a position on the ice where the lack of zip on his shot won’t matter as much.

Marner will have even more space there if Matthews is available to play.

“No videotaping, Mark,” Marner shouted in jest to TSN’s Mark Masters, filming the work on his phone during the unit’s pre-practice session on Monday. “You’ll share our secrets.”

Guy Boucher, who runs the power play, appeared to be stressing the need for more support around the puck at that session — better retrievals, in other words.

The Leafs assistant coach placed a puck along the wall and had three of the five members of the unit crowd around before the group got into their set actions.

“We gotta be hungry,” Tavares said, “the way we work for pucks, work for opportunities.”

Nylander said the Leafs were intent on moving pucks around quicker on the power play and firing from more varied locations on the ice. “The focus is get the puck to the net and then get the rebounds and get those in,” Nylander said.

The Leafs are 1-14 on the power play in this series.

Keefe identified special teams (the penalty kill has killed off only 53.9 percent of the Bruins’ power plays) and goaltending as the two big areas for needed improvement in Game 5, whether Matthews plays or not. “They’ve had the edge in those areas in the series,” Keefe said, “and that’s tough to overcome.”

(Photo of Max Domi: Claus Andersen / Getty Images)

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