Sheldon Keefe casually predicted a “physical, borderline violent series in many ways.”
Just don’t expect Maple Leafs-Flyers 1976.
While fighting in hockey is very much alive, the gloves tend to stay on at playoff time, with the possible exception of ‘sending a message’ at the end of a lopsided result or conclusion of a bitter series. Even the rogue element doesn’t want to sit five or 10 minutes of precious post-season time.
“It’s initiating rather than retaliating,” Leafs fourth-liner Wayne Simmonds said last week. “We want to be the first team to jump in there and go full bore, whether that’s hits, grinding it out, smothering our opponents… we want to be the first, not reactionary.”
Keefe trusts his team not to cross the line.
“We want them to be as competitive as possible. I didn’t look at our team as an undisciplined group, or anything. I’m pretty confident in their ability to stay focused and play through anything. We want to be aggressive and physical ourselves. We’ve been way more physical in the past six weeks than all season, a reflection of bringing in (Colin) Blackwell, (Ilya) Lyubushkin, more from (Kyle) Clifford, Simmonds, (Jason) Spezza and guys like Mitch (Marner) ) and Auston (Matthews) stepping up. It’s going to ramp up even more.”
Verbal sparring will have to replace the real thing.
“When you play in the league as long as I have, and a lot of guys on our team, you generally know when’s a good time to fight and not to,” Simmonds said. “You don’t want to give the other team momentum. It’s on us guys who like to partake in stuff like that to be smart about it and use it to our advantage.”
What might the Game 1 gauntlet look like for Keefe?
“I’ve watched (Tampa Bay) through their playoff runs, re-watched it since. In the first round last year (against Florida), they definitely led the league in skirmishes after the whistle and things after the whistle, stuff like that.”
If Keefe was trying to plant that idea in the league’s mind, it’s up to Paul Devorski, who will be in charge of this series as officiating supervisor.
John Tavares and Steven Stamkos have shared a common journey as GTA products chosen first overall in consecutive drafts, now NHL stars, captains of two prominent teams. Playoffs is where their paths have diverged, at least to date.
“I know Stammer really well, we played spring hockey together, World Cup, World Juniors and growing up in the same area, being the same age,” Tavares said. “He might be the hottest player in the league finishing the season (26 points his last nine games, including a hat trick on Friday). We have to be ready for his skill set, he’s very accomplished with that team the last two years.
“We’ve had respect and friendship over the years, but this is a good chance for us to compete against one another.”
LAFLEUR AND THE LEAFS
Leafs president Brendan Shanahan organized a group of former Toronto captains to be in Montreal for the Guy Lafleur funeral service on Tuesday, joined by Doug Gilmour, Rick Vaive and Wendel Clark.
“The Leafs and Canadiens have been fierce competitors since the NHL began,” Shanahan told reporters there. “But there is a deep respect for each organization. So, it was important for me and some of our alumni to pay our respects for Guy’s family and for Guy.”
The official conclusion of the NHL regular season Sunday confirmed Matthews as the Rocket Richard Trophy winner with 60 goals, the first time a Leaf has won a major award back-to-back since Dave Keon’s Lady Byng honors in 1962-63 … Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman and Anthony Cirelli all have playoff overtime goals for this current Lightning team, with only Matthews in that club for the current Leafs … Matthews, asked if his line feels the pressure to match Kucherov and Point in goals and assists in the series: “A good question. You really look at it like you have to out-play the guy in front of you, it doesn’t matter who it is. (Tampa Bay) has been the standard of the league the last couple of years, their top players have led the way. I think anyone who goes out there (for Toronto) is just focused on their shift” … Special assignment coach Paul MacLean has been back with the Leafs the past few days, likely having worked on a playoff project. Last week, Keefe reached 116 NHL coaching wins, passing MacLean’s total of 114.