Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Ritchie, Steeves, Rubins & Marner

As part of their three-game homestand, the Toronto Maple Leafs will face the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning tonight. As one would expect, the Lightning are a strong team and come into the game two points behind (with two games in hand) the Maple Leafs in a tough Atlantic Division.

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The Maple Leafs had an easier time with the Columbus Blue Jackets than the 5-4 score would suggest; however, they probably can’t afford any third-period letdown If they expect to win tonight. There’s no doubt the team heard just that message yesterday at practice. 

After the Blue Jacket’s game, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe seemed downright grumpy about a number of aspects of the game. His comment that “I didn’t like much about the game at any period” seemed pretty to the point.

Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Perhaps he hopes the game taught his charges a lesson when he added that he was “kind of happy that, frankly, the third period catches up to us because it probably should have.”

In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at some of what’s happening with the team as it prepares for the game this evening.

Item One: Can Nick Ritchie Score Two Games in a Row?

During the Blue Jackets’ game, Nick Ritchie scored his first Maple Leafs’ goal. He had been frustrated for 26-straight games without scoring and he obviously felt good about the goal. Ritchie admitted that “It had been a while (since I scored), a lot of games, probably as long as it’s been since I’ve played hockey. Hopefully, I can build some confidence and momentum from that.” 

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Although Ritchie has been wearing a bit of a target for fans’ abuse, according to both my eyes and the coaching staff, he’s been playing well. During his last eight games, he’s had six points and is currently on a four-game point streak. 

After the game, Keefe was asked about Ritchie’s goal. Apparently, when the big winger would score had become a bit of an “office pool” among the team. Keefe noted that, prior to the game, he felt it would be Ritchie’s day. However, the coach also admitted that he’s been calling for the goal for quite a few games.

Nick Ritchie Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Ritchie, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Keefe added that Ritchie was “quietly playing well here. Coming into tonight, he had four points in his last five games. You could just see it coming. He has had some really good chances. I am thrilled for him, and the team is thrilled for him as well.”

Item Two: The Team Will Miss Mitch Marner

For an injury that wasn’t considered serious at first, it’s been a bit of a bad surprise for the team that Mitch Marner will miss three to four weeks with an injury he sustained after colliding with Jake Muzzin in a practice drill last Friday. What else can the coach say except “things happen in this game, some are unfortunate?”

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Keefe added, “You adapt, you adjust. That’s it. That’s what we’ve been doing. (Marner) is a big loss for us. He’s a major contributor five-on-five, penalty kill, power play. Other guys need to step up and fill that gap.” (from “Mitch Marner out three to four weeks, Jason Spezza suspended six games, Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, 07/12/21).

Item Three: Other Maple Leafs’ Players Who Are Missing

Marner’s injury was simply worse than expected; however, other Maple Leafs’ players will also be missing. Jason Spezza will be serving game two of the six-game suspension he got for kneeing Neal Pionk. Earlier in that game, Pionk had initiated a knee-on-knee collision with Rasmus Sandin. The ensuing injury will cost Sandin about two or three weeks. 

Jason Spezza Toronto Maple Leafs
Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In their places, the Maple Leafs gave two prospects their NHL debuts against the Blue Jackets. Young center Alex Steeves and defenseman Kristians Rubins both played their first NHL games on Tuesday. 

Keefe noted that he liked both the youngsters’ games. Both showed confidence in carrying and moving the puck. While Rubins had had some workouts with the big club, it was Steeves’ first time with his new line-mates – not even a practice. 

About Steeves, coach Keefe noted, “he wasn’t in our camp and didn’t know any of our guys. The guys don’t know him. He was just kind of dropped in.” 

However, Keefe added that Steeves “played with confidence and his game got better throughout. He has some good details to his game. He is a smart guy. He plays with a good conscience out on the ice. I thought it was a good game for both of those guys.’

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The Lightning come to town after collecting their fourth straight win against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday. The last time the two teams met was on November 4, and the Maple Leafs won a tight one 2-1. Again, it will be great to see some of the young Maple Leafs’ prospects play. Here’s hoping Ritchie can go on a scoring binge now. 

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On Tuesday, the Lightning picked up forward Riley Nash from waivers from the Winnipeg Jets. Nash, as Maple Leafs’ fans recall, came in the trade deadline deal last season with Nick Foligno, who’s since moved to the Boston Bruins. Nash didn’t play a minute with the Maple Leafs while he was with the team.

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