What the Leafs and Panthers are saying about Sam Bennett’s success on Matthew Knies

TORONTO — Matthew Knies skated slowly towards the Maple Leafs bench, looking dazed, shaken and confused. Surrounding the Leafs rookie winger, thousands of fans were also (and audibly) confused, wondering through worried cries how Panthers center Sam Bennett could have escaped punishment from the referees.

Seconds earlier, Bennett had grabbed Knies behind the Panthers’ net, wrapped his right arm around Knies’ head, landed a quick punch, pushed his back against the boards, then — in a way that reminded Dwayne Johnson and his patented Rock Bottom in the late 90s – needlessly slammed him on the ice with that same right arm.

When Knies finally got to the bench, he immediately took off his helmet, caught the attention of the team’s head therapist, Paul Ayotte, and widened his eyes. He may have seen the strong start to his NHL career slow in the process.

Knies did not return to the game after the first intermission. Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t provide an update, but he didn’t exactly dismiss any concerns about his status going forward.

“He didn’t finish the game, so it’s not positive,” Keefe said after the Leafs lost 3-2 in Game 2.

Keefe reserved comment on Bennett’s withdrawal, only to say, “The league will look into that.”

In a quiet Leafs locker room after the game, the team’s veterans expressed concern about Bennett’s play on their young teammate.

“We would have liked to see a penalty on it,” said Ryan O’Reilly.

“I didn’t like it, obviously,” Leafs captain John Tavares said of the game.

He was not alone.

Game 2 saw Bennett become public enemy No. 1 in Toronto. When his face was shown on the big screen at Scotiabank Arena after his second-period cross-check penalty against Michael Bunting, Bennett drew a chorus of rousing boos from the Leafs faithful.

“I think he tried to hit me and jumped out of the way,” Bennett said of the game with Knies. “He was tied up in my arm there. That was pretty much it on that one.

A member of team staff thanked Bennett for answering questions, but a follow-up question was posed to the group of reporters before the player could leave. Bennett was asked about his cross-check on Leafs forward Bunting late in the second period, where he appeared to make contact with the side of his opponent’s head. Florida was leading 3-2 at the time and Bennett was given a two-minute minor cross-check on the play.

“I’m sure Bunting’s cross-check is eerily similar to what we’ve seen with Auston in the outdoor game,” Keefe said, referring to Auston Matthews’ two-game suspension in March 2022 after that the Leafs forward cross-checked the Buffalo Sabres. defender Rasmus Dahlin. “We know how this one worked.”

Speaking in the visitors’ locker room after the match, he offered his contrition for this second game, on the counter-check which was caught.

“I mean, I can’t take that penalty there,” Bennett said. “Go to his shoulder. I’m just trying to move it out of the way. He goes up and grabs her a bit. It’s the one I’d love to do again, that’s for sure.

A few yards away, closer to the center of the room, Panthers defender Marc Staal was asked about Knies’ play.

“I didn’t see what you’re talking about there,” Staal said. “I mean, Benny, he’s a competitive guy. He plays without fear and he completes the checks.

“I think we’ve been on the other side of the ledger enough,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said minutes later from the media room dais down the hall.

Maurice did not hesitate to believe that his team is penalized too much.

“We just accepted the fact that we will be in the penalty box more than the opponent only because it has been true for eight games. We will just tell (keeper Sergei Bobrovsky) to sleep a lot, ”Maurice said after the game 1. “We have to take it a bit on the chin to earn the reputation that we are good men. We can accept that.”

That reputation is now in question following Bennett’s withdrawal from Knies.

The Panthers were asked about their physical play, which has continued since their upset first-round win over the Bruins. Florida endured what Maurice often described as “heavyweight” play, which became a rallying point in the room. “We’re not just running like animals right now,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “We’re just trying to play with our identity.” Asked if he’s seen the game behind his net, with Bennett and Knies, and if he thinks any of it might get the attention of NHL player safety: “Um, I don’t think ‘he’ll hear about player safety.”

The Leafs’ next availability is Friday afternoon when a further update on Knies’ status could arrive.

Knies was under heavy physical strain in his first 10 NHL games. Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas, in particular, made Knies a target in the first two games of the second-round series.

If Knies is unavailable for at least Game 3, it would be a big loss for the Leafs. Although only 20 years old, Knies looked more like a seasoned professional in his 10 NHL games after signing his entry contract from the University of Minnesota on April 9. When he started his NHL career with three meaningless games at the end of the regular season, Knies’ strong puck-handling skills, his ability to play through contact and create scoring chances with a powerful shot and willingness to drive towards the net translated into professional play.

Once he entered the Leafs roster in Game 2 against Tampa Bay with Bunting suspended, Knies’ rapid rise continued. His deft plays with the puck down the wall helped the Leafs build sustained offensive pressure, especially before Tavares’ overtime series-winning goal in Game 6 against Tampa.

He became one of the Leafs’ most consistent forwards in the first round, and a continued sense of composure kept him on the ice for all three of their first-round overtime goals.

Questions about whether he could even keep his head above water in the NHL disappeared when he scored his first goal in Game 1 and Keefe himself called Knies a player who can “make the difference”.

If the rookie who makes the difference is not available, Keefe will have to make decisions.

The slightly unconventional decision to shake up his roster and go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen in Game 6 against Tampa Bay raised a lot of eyebrows, but Keefe’s decision ended up being vindicated with a crucial win. Erik Gustafsson may have only played 7:38 into Game 6 as the seventh defenseman, but he didn’t look out of place either. Keefe could also use a changing roster as an opportunity to get Justin Holl back in the series on a seven-defender rotation and regain his confidence.

If Keefe wants to stick with 12 forwards, at least on paper, the easiest option would be to insert Zach Aston-Reese back into the lineup after recording just 6:21 in Game 1 and being dropped from the Game 2 roster. Maybe Keefe goes back to a fourth line of Aston-Reese, David Kampf and Sam Lafferty. It’s a line he was a fan of at the end of the regular season. At their best, the line brings the kind of energy that allows them to force turnovers in the offensive zone and get off the ice. But against Tampa Bay, that energy slowed, and when the offense was at its peak, that line was able to combine for just three points. Keefe last used this line together in Game 5 against Tampa Bay.

Would that sense of familiarity be enough for Keefe to return to that line and hope that his energy and forechecking can force a suspicious Panther defense to make mistakes to his own end?

This option could see Alex Kerfoot (rightly) move up the roster after scoring in Game 2 against the Panthers. Or, Kerfoot could stay on the fourth line to bring some offense to the line.

What if the continued physique the Panthers are comfortable showing on the show causes Keefe to look at Wayne Simmonds a little differently? The 34-year-old last played on April 8 and has played just six games in the final three months of the regular season. If Keefe wants to set the tone on the road early in the game but sacrifice some speed and offense, you wonder if Simmonds becomes more of an intriguing option for game three.

Maybe Keefe is using the two days off between games to consider some sort of nuclear option, like calling a Marlie. Bobby McMann began training this week after aggravating a knee injury in March.

Still, as many options as Keefe seems to have, none of them would likely have the positive impact on the flow of the game and on the scoresheet as Knies would.

So in a series that has already seen the Leafs caught on their heels — sometimes with physical, high-octane opposition that quickly snatched home ice advantage from them — the loss of Knies could have created a bigger hill for them. to climb as they head to Florida for Game 3.

(Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Leave a Comment