‘Something to prove’: Leafs give Mrazek chance to respond on big outdoor stage

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TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who held an optional practice at the Ford Performance Center on Friday ahead of the 2022 Heritage Classic against the Buffalo Sabers at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on Sunday.

It may have been an obvious decision, but it was not an easy one to make.

“We thought a lot about it,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We talked a lot about it.”

Ultimately, the Leafs tabbed embattled goalie Petr Mrazek to start on Sunday against the Buffalo Sabers in the Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

“You want to give Petr an opportunity to get back in and respond,” Keefe explained. “There’s the fact it’s an outdoor game and Petr has experience playing outdoor games in the NHL. There’s a lot of stuff going on that makes it obvious to give Petr another chance to go back in.”

Mrazek started and won a Stadium Series game for the Detroit Red Wings against the Colorado Avalanche back on Feb. 27, 2016 at Coors Field in Denver.

With Jack Campbell sidelined with a rib injury, this should be Mrazek’s chance to establish himself in the Leafs net. But on Thursday night, he allowed four goals on 12 shots before being pulled in the second period against the Arizona Coyotes. Erik Kallgren, 25, made his National Hockey League debut in relief stopping 10 of 11 shots before taking the loss in overtime.

“With it being an outdoor game, I don’t want to put Kallgren in that spot,” Keefe said, “especially when you have a guy who has experience and a little something to prove.”

Mrazek has played 291 NHL games over 11 seasons. This isn’t his first taste of adversity at this level.

“Those things happen,” the 30-year-old Czech native said after Thursday’s game. “I’ve been in this situation before and I’m not worried about it … My mentality is pretty good with those things so just forget about that.”

Mrazek has posted an ugly .884 save percentage over 16 games during his first season in Toronto.

“He’s won 10 games for us,” Keefe pointed out. “He hasn’t played nearly to his ability, but he’s won games for us this season and we need to win a game on Sunday.”

Mrazek spent 45 minutes on the ice working with goalie coach Steve Briere on Friday.

“He just said he was committed to coming in and working,” Keefe said. “Petr came in today and had a good work day and the reports were all really good and positive and that was the last thing I was looking for towards making a decision.”

‘He’s got something to prove’: Mrazek gets the nod for the Heritage Classic

After a tough outing that saw him surrender four goals on only 12 shots, Petr Mrazek will get the nod in goal for the Maple Leafs when they take on the Buffalo Sabers in Hamilton on Sunday. Head coach Sheldon Keefe spoke about the decision to go back to his veteran netminder after a tough stretch of games.

Keefe described the first goal Mrazek allowed on Thursday as “maybe as tough of a goal as we have given up all season.” Mrazek misplayed a harmless shot with the rebound landing in front for Alex Galchenyuk to tap in.

“It hits the inside of the blocker instead of outside,” Mrazek said. “It can’t happen. Those saves are easy.”

Mrazek was overly aggressive on the second Arizona goal, which came off the rush. He committed to Phil Kesselwho then passed it across the ice to Jakob Chychrun. The Coyotes defenseman fanned on the shot, but Mrazek was so far out of position that he couldn’t get back in time.

Keefe wanted to pull Mrazek at that point, but the coach was reluctant to put Kallgren in a tough position. Keefe felt he had no choice after the Coyotes extended their lead to 4-1.

“It was obvious we needed a change,” Keefe stated bluntly. “With the third and fourth goals, I don’t think there was a lot Petr could do on those. When you give up the first two like that, you can’t give up three and four. You have to find a way to make the saves for us in that case.”

Kallgren, who helped Vaxjo win a Swedish Hockey League title last season, appeared unfazed in his first taste of NHL action. What was he thinking?

“Not much, to be honest,” he said. “Tried to keep the head clear and go out there and embrace the moment. It was a big moment for me to play my first minutes in the NHL so, yeah, just try to have fun … I tried to prepare like I was playing. So, I was trying to mentally be in the game all the time.”

“Kallgren showed very well,” Keefe said, “showed us that he can go in if we need him to and we like a lot of what he did last night.”

John Tavares and William Nylanderwho had been split up to start Thursday’s game, were reunited on a line with Alex Kerfoot in the third period and helped spark Toronto’s comeback bid.

“I thought both guys, when they weren’t together, had good legs early in the game,” Keefe said. “I liked the way they worked and competed. Once you get down in the game, I felt the need to shorten the bench and go with fewer guys to try to get a smaller group really going.”

Nylander and Kerfoot both scored in the third period.

“I did like it when they were back together, but I think that trust was earned by how they were playing apart from one another,” Keefe said. “It was good to see. Willy had his best legs in a while. I thought John really worked and competed. That line was good for us.”

Before the game, Keefe said his patience had run out with the Tavares-Nylander combination. Not only were they not producing at their regular rate, but that line was allowing a lot of goals. Why was the chemistry lacking?

“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly,” Tavares admitted. “There’s probably opportunities where we just haven’t capitalized. We got to do better consistently game in and game out and being better defensively, too.”

Tavares, who didn’t register a shot on goal against the Coyotes, was among the 10 players to hit the ice on Friday. Keefe was surprised to see the team’s 31-year-old captain out there.

“Rest is important at this time of year,” Keefe said. “We just finished playing three games in four nights. That is why we didn’t want the full practice today. Of all the players that I trust to know their bodies and know what they need, John is at the top of the list. “

Why is Tavares at the top of the list?

“Just through his experience, how he takes care of himself, how in tune he is with how he is feeling, and how closely he works with our medical and strength teams,” Keefe said. “He is dialed in and doesn’t miss a beat with regards to anything that relates to his own preparation … If he felt he needed that work today, we trust him.”

Keefe says he saw ‘encouraging signs’ from Nylander, Tavares against Coyotes

While they started the game apart against the Arizona Coyotes, ultimately head coach Sheldon Keefe reunited William Nylander and John Tavares as they game progressed. Keefe said he saw encouraging signs from both players when they were apart, and that they “earned the right” to be reunited in the end.

Prior to Chychrun’s overtime winner, the Arizona defenseman appeared to hold Auston Matthews in the neutral zone. The Leafs superstar was furious that no penalty was called.

“I felt what I felt,” Matthews fumed afterwards. “There’s really nothing I can change now so there’s no sense really talking about it, I guess. No comment.”

Matthews, the league’s top goal scorer, has only elicited seven calls in 55 games.

“It is strange,” said Tavares. “Someone who is that difficult to defend and that good and has the puck and is threatening a lot and playing a majority of his game offensively, you would think there would be more.”

Keefe has a theory.

“He is, in a lot of ways, unstoppable,” the coach said of the 6-foot-3, 205-pound center. “His feet keep moving. He plays through obstruction, traffic, sticks and holds. A lot of players can’t do that. They don’t have that ability. While you see a stat like that and you might focus on the officiating, it is also a lot more challenging to call penalties against Auston because he plows through it like there is nothing there. That is part of it.”

Referees Kendrick Nicholson and Brandon Blandina didn’t call any penalties on Thursday night.

“Auston has the puck a lot,” veteran forward Jason Spezza said. “Should he draw more penalties? Probably, but it’s not a topic that we really need to get into. We have to, game to game, assess how the game’s being called and adjust.”

The Leafs rank 31st in drawn penalties this season. Division rivals Florida (third), Tampa (sixth) and Boston (14th) are all in the top half of the league in this category.

“Each official has their own personality,” noted Keefe. “Ultimately, our message to the players is that we have to play through these things. You can’t impact the way the game is called. You can’t control that. You just have to play through it … I don’ don’t spend very much time focused on penalties or non-penalties or whatever.”

‘It is strange’: Tavares, Leafs react to Matthews’ inability to draw penalties

Auston Matthews scored his league-leading 44th goal of the season against the Arizona Coyotes, but there is one stat where he hasn’t shown well: penalties drawn. Leafs’ captain John Tavares admitted it’s strange that Matthews has only drawn six or seven penalties on the year, while head coach Sheldon Keefe attributes it to Matthews’ ability to drive through obstruction.

Spezza sat out the last two games as a healthy scratch.

“I take it as I got to play better,” the 38-year-old forward said. “I want to be in the lineup every night and if I was playing better I’d be in the lineup.”

Toronto’s fourth line has gone cold. Since the team’s COVID break in mid-December, Wayne Simmonds is goalless in 27 games. Spezza has just two goals in five-on-five play over his last 26 games.

“I’m the leader of the line,” Spezza said, “and it’s important we’re able to be trusted by the coach to go out there and give positive shifts. We also have the capability to chip in with big goals here and there and that’s an area I want to focus on.”

Keefe confirmed that Spezza will be in the lineup on Sunday. Despite playing in the NHL for two decades, Sunday will only be his second outdoor game. Spezza also suited up for the Ottawa Senators at the 2014 Heritage Classic in Vancouver.

“I love playing outside,” he said. “I still get outside and skate quite a bit and I think it’s great. It will be a cool atmosphere.”

Attendance at Friday’s optional practice:

Kyle Clifford

Travis Dermott

Ondrej Kase

Timothy Liljegren

Ilya Lyubushkin

Nick Robertson

Rasmus Sandin

Wayne Simmonds

Jason Spezza

John Tavares

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