Maple Leafs wary of travel fatigue following successful Swedish sojourn
Toronto's Matthew Knies, 2nd right, celebrates scoring with teammates Mark Giordano, left, Auston Matthews, 2nd left, and Jake McCabe during the NHL Global Series Sweden ice hockey match between Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota Wild at Avicii Arena in Stockholm, Sweden, Sunday Nov. 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-TT, Claudio Bresciani
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, November 22, 2023 7:23PM EST
TORONTO - Guy Boucher's team boarded the plane with four points in the bank.
The Ottawa Senators and their head coach had just taken both games from the Colorado Avalanche in Stockholm - back-to-back 4-3 victories - to sweep the NHL Global Series.
It ended up being their high point that season.
The Senators' trip to Sweden in November 2017 was followed by a disastrous run and spectacular fall once back on the ground in North America. Ottawa picked up a solitary victory over its next 13 contests (1-10-2) to sink the franchise's playoff aspirations after making it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final the previous spring.
The Maple Leafs are hoping to avoid anything approaching a repeat. And with Boucher now an assistant in Toronto, they have plenty of first-hand intel on the potential impact of in-season, transatlantic road trips.
“Just about not underrating it,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of his conversations with Boucher after the team returned to practice Wednesday. “Giving it the proper attention that it deserves. It's a real thing you have to manage.
“You can't just expect the guys to push through and grind through without us being really smart and deliberate and doing what we can to take care of them.”
Toronto beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 after trailing 2-0 on Friday at Avicii Arena before securing a 4-3 overtime decision against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday.
Leafs winger William Nylander had two goals and three assists playing in his hometown, including that OT clincher, as Toronto now pivots to a Friday afternoon tilt in Chicago against the Blackhawks for U.S. Thanksgiving before visiting the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.
“Good to get moving, mentally get back in sync with things,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “Important couple days to get back up to speed.”
“It's better to fly this way versus going to Sweden,” Nylander added of potential jet lag. “Easier to get into the time zone.”
Keefe was happy his team left Europe with the maximum points, but didn't love how they got there despite strong performances from Nylander, Tavares, Tyler Bertuzzi, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and an under-fire penalty kill.
“We didn't play our best hockey,” Keefe said. “But a lot of encouraging signs of how the group pulled together in big moments.”
Now it's about getting back in the swing of things on this side of the ocean with Toronto sitting 10-5-2 through 17 games.
“A long distance travelled, but we only played two games,” said Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano, the NHL's oldest player at age 40. “We should be really fresh.”
Keefe and his staff are doing everything in their power to make sure that's the case so the Leafs don't experience a downturn similar to the one that doomed their provincial rivals six years ago.
“Have to be smart about it,” Keefe said. “And not disregard it as just hockey and part of the schedule.
“It's something that really needs our attention.”
TIMMINS ALMOST READY; KLINGBERG STILL OUT
Leafs defenceman Conor Timmins is close to returning from a lower-body injury suffered in training camp.
“The whole rehab process went smoothly,” he said. “Pretty comfortable with where I'm at.”
Fellow blueliner John Klingberg remains out with an undisclosed injury. Keefe said he won't be available for the games in Chicago and Pittsburgh.
“Continuing to work through things,” said the coach. “We'll have something for you when something's changed. At this point, there's no change in his status.”
BEDARD IMPRESSES LEAFS
Blackhawks rookie Connor Bedard had nine goals and 15 points through 16 contests heading into Wednesday's action.
The No. 1 pick at June's draft helped his team pick up a 4-1 victory in Toronto last month. While there's plenty of talk about Bedard's powerful shot - and rightly so - Tavares pointed to something else in the 18-year-old's tool belt.
“It's his hockey sense that impresses me,” he said. “He's just got such good awareness of time and space.
“His release and deception is as good as any player in the game.”
Giordano, Bertuzzi and defenceman Simon Benoit tested out neck guards at Wednesday's skate.
The equipment has once again become a focus following the death of a player in England after his neck was cut by a skate blade.
“I'm in full support of guys if they're comfortable,” Keefe said. “It's a very personal thing, especially when we're in the midst of a season and guys are performing at the highest level, have lots of pressure and expectations, and are very particular about their gear.
“The more players that do it makes them safer, and I think it sends a really important message to young people that it's an important piece of equipment.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2023.