TORONTO – The manner with which the Toronto Maple Leafs responded to Tom Wilson in Monday’s win over the Washington Capitals tells fans all they need to know about how their coach wants his team to deal with adversity.
Sheldon Keefe made a point to watch the scene back: Intense game tied up by a rallying home team in D.C. Play already whistled dead. Only six minutes left in regulation. And an unprovoked Wilson – the villain every team wants on their side – bullies John Tavares to the ice in an aggressive display of intimidation.
No Leaf immediately responds to Wilson or gets in his face. The closest one to the incident is William Nylander, hardly a physical match for the 6-foot-4, 220-pound scrapper.
So, how did Keefe feel watching the replay? Would he have preferred a teammate to stick up for Tavares right away?
“It can go both ways for me. I think there is a symbolic part of it, where you're staying together and all that. But you can say whatever you want to Tom Wilson – it’s not going to change a single thing about how he plays or what he does,” Keefe said Wednesday. “So, I don't know if it's worth really engaging it.
“There's a certain number of guys that it doesn't matter. Just like, in a different way, it doesn't matter what you say or do to Michael Bunting – you're not going to change how he plays.
“So you can pretend that it’s going to make a difference, but it's not going to make a difference. If I have my choice, I'd rather just keep playing. Play harder. Be more competitive when the puck drops.”
Tavares did just that.
Determined to make a difference, to show that he would not be shoved into silence, Tavares responded with a dogged 4-on-4 shift that resulted in a smartly won puck battle in the Capitals’ zone to help set up Rasmus Sandin’s winning goal.
Make no mistake, Wilson had a dominant performance (two goals, four hits, seven shots and a steal), but the Maple Leafs won the game, in large part, due to Tavares’s relentlessness.
Keefe sees Tavares’s response – not with the fist but with what Justin Holl termed his “wizard twig” – as both symbolic and important. He wants his bench to take notes.
“We talked a ton about that. We want to be a team that stands up and is right there in the moment. But most importantly, you want to be a team that just keeps playing through physicality or when the emotions get high or when the stakes get high,” Keefe said.
“You just keep playing. In fact, if anything, you've got to dig in and play harder and look to get an advantage on your opponent in a different way. John competed incredibly hard the other night.”
Diving further into that third-period turning point, Keefe points to the effort fourth-liner Wayne Simmonds made to draw offsetting roughing minors against Trevor van Riemsdyk. Simmonds is the one who opened the ice for some 4-on-4 play that allowed Toronto’s skill to execute.
Keep seeing people complaining about the Leafs didn't retaliate after Tom Wilson took down John Tavares. Yet here is Wayne Simmonds lining up against Wilson trying to engage in a scrum.— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) March 1, 2022
“He went on that shift and was very determined to make a difference in the shift. Turns out, it creates a skirmish, the emotions rise, it’s 4-on-4, and the game changes just a little bit. Our guys go out, and we end up winning the game through that. So, I think all those things come together — and that's really what we’re looking for,” Keefe explained.
“As emotions rise, as the crowd gets loud, as it gets physical, as it gets hard, keep playing. Plays through it. We’re a good team. If we can maintain that attitude, it’s going to help us.”
One-Timers: Ondrej Kase is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury and is not expected to play against the Buffalo Sabres Wednesday. ... Petr Mrazek – winner of his past three appearances and seven of his past nine – receives his first consecutive starts as a Maple Leaf, as Jack Campbell takes time to clear his head. ... Tavares will attempt to snuff out his 13-game goal drought. One would need to flip all the way back to the captain’s rookie season, 2009-10, to find a longer stretch without a goal. ... Player of the Month Mitch Marner will appear in his 400th career game. ... Timothy Liljegren will be a healthy scratch.
Projected Maple Leafs lines:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Kämpf - Engvall
Robertson - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Sandin
Brodie - Holl
Dermott - Lyubushkin