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Rare practice day after back-to-back games speaks to Leafs' commitment

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

It's not often an NHL team will practice the day after playing two games in as many nights - and especially a team that's done so on the road and is in the thick of a race for a playoff spot - but the Maple Leafs players decided they wanted to get together Wednesday and work on their collective game. That's an act that speaks to how much the players enjoy each other's company, but more importantly, how focused Toronto is on being as tight of a unit as it can be down the final stretch of the regular season.

"Just because we have a travel day tomorrow, practice days are important, especially this time of year to try to tweak some of your weaknesses," veteran centre Nazem Kadri told Leafs Nation Network Wednesday. "So (we) just went out there and put in some work. It was short and high-paced, just the way we like it."

The Leafs returned from Florida late Tuesday night after losing both games of their two-game road trip that saw them square off against the Lightning and the Panthers. Toronto did gain a standings point in each contest, falling 4-3 to the Bolts in a shootout and 3-2 to the Panthers in overtime, but in a league where a single point could result in a team gaining home ice advantage in the playoffs, each night really is crucial to a franchise's positioning.

And with centre Auston Matthews out of the lineup recovering from an upper-body injury, his linemate William Nylander has been thrust into a bigger role. Nylander is renowned for his offensive skills, but he's steadily improved his play away from the puck and in Tuesday's loss, his growing defensive acumen was on display in Toronto's game-tying goal: after the Leafs lost the puck in Florida's zone, Nylander's backchecking got it back at centre ice, and he raced in on a 2-on-1 rush with winger Zach Hyman before pushing it to Hyman, who beat goalie Roberto Luongo to tie it at two goals apiece and eventually force overtime.

That improvement in his defensive game is something his teammates recognize and appreciate.

"Maturity - he's much more responsible now," centre Nazem Kadri said when asked what the biggest change in Nylander has been from last season to this year. "I feel like his two-way game has come a long way. He works hard to get himself into open areas to receive the puck, and that translates into good things offensively. His offensive talent speaks for itself, so he's doing a great job playing in his own end, executing in the neutral zone, and it's resulting in lots of (offensive) zone time."

Also improving is sophomore winger Mitch Marner; although he didn't register a point against the Panthers, Marner amassed three goals and seven points in his previous three games, and his 20:49 of ice time against Florida was a season high for the 20-year-old. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock tempered his praise of Marner by noting his line turned over the puck too often against the Panthers, but Babcock gave the youngster his due as one of the team's most dynamic offensive threats.

"Mitch is a different kind of player, different kind of energy (than Nylander), but there's no question, his start and (the way he's) playing right now are night-and-day different," Babcock said. "The reality is he's got his game going and he's playing at a high level right now."

The Leafs' focus now turns to the Washington Capitals, who they'll take on Saturday in the NHL's Stadium Series outdoor game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md.. Toronto got its second taste of playing outdoors at the 2017 Centennial Classic in Toronto - its first taste came on New Year's Day of 2014 in Ann Arbor, Mich., - but weather conditions always leave players a little hesitant in terms of what they can expect to deal with on the ice.

"We'll see when we get up there," Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen said. "I don't know what the weather's going to be like, so it's just another thing you've got to just roll with and be ready to adjust if you need to."

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