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Rifai called up, Tavares is back, and the return of the five-forward power play unit: Leafs Practice Notes

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Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
1 month ago
The Leafs reached deep into the depth chart on the eve of a four-game road trip as Marshall Rifai is the latest defenceman to get the callup.
This comes after William Lagesson exited last night’s contest with an upper-body injury which Sheldon Keefe told reporters after the game the blueliner was going to miss some time but has since upgraded his status to”day-to-day”. Combined with Morgan Rielly still suspended, Mark Giordano away from the team after the sudden passing of his father and Conor Timmins recovering from mono, the Leafs’ blueline will be put to the test for the next little bit.
Assuming he plays tomorrow afternoon against the Blues, Rifai will be the 11th Leafs defenceman to appear in a game this season. But he is a guy who has a lot of fans within the organization because of his playstyle and development story, earning an NHL contract the hard way after going undrafted and honing his craft at Harvard University. Rifai plays a steady game, likes to throw hits, and is a willing combatant for scraps when necessary.
It remains to be seen how many minutes he will get over the next few games if he plays, but the fact that he has made it to the show has to feel good for Rifai. He will help stem the tide during a trying time for the defence if nothing else.
The Leafs have been taking a beating with injuries and the flu throughout the season, but it looks like they will be getting some additional help tomorrow.
John Tavares missed last night’s game with what was described as a minor injury. He has also been fighting a cold which kept him out of the lineup on Tuesday and the fallout of that latest bout was evident during their game against the Flyers on Thursday. While it is certainly a welcome sight to have him back so soon, it’s fair to say that it will probably take him some time to get back up to full strength.
He skated alongside his usual linemates William Nylander and Tyler Bertuzzi at practice and got some additional reps on the man advantage. (More on that later)
Max Domi, Jake McCabe, and Timothy Liljegren were absent from practice as all three were given maintenance days. The more eye-opening revelation is that Keefe does not know what lineup he will use against the Blues because the aforementioned players are all game-time decisions.
Their blowout win against the Ducks ended up being a scrappy affair with both Domi and McCabe being at the forefront of the physical nature the game brought. As for Liljegren, he took a hard hit in the first period that appeared to have shaken him up but was able to power through it.
Depending on the severity of the situation, you may see some additional emergency recalls on top of Rifai either later today or tomorrow morning. But regardless, it sounds like we will see another funky lineup when the Leafs make their lone trip to St. Louis.
As a result of so much uncertainty with the lineup, the Leafs opted to use this practice as a chance to once again experiment with a five-forward power play unit. It might be a risky endeavour given the Blues are one of the most aggressive teams on the penalty kill, but there are not many teams that can stack the deck with five all-stars on one line like the Leafs can.
This won’t be the first time Toronto has tried to run a five-forward unit as it was used numerous times last season with varying results. The drawbacks are obvious as going with this strategy does have its shortcomings, but the idea in principle makes sense, especially for a team blessed with tons of quality forwards up front.
The strategy being used tomorrow depends on the status of several players before puck drop tomorrow, but the fact it was even being used in practice is an intriguing sight nonetheless.
After practice, Keefe provided an update on Joseph Woll’s status and it sounds like the goalie is not quite ready to return to the crease. Given how cautious the Leafs have been throughout the recovery process, it makes sense why they aren’t rushing to get him back in the lineup and allow him all the time he needs.
The Leafs are also not expected to have any practices during the trip as they will be in four cities over six days with little time for a layover. That means Woll will probably be slated to return in early March with their tilt against the Sabres on March 8th being a likely target for him and the team.
No doubt the lack of a clear return date is frustrating given how long he has been out of commission, but the Leafs certainly recognize how important Woll is to their long-term plans and want to ensure he does not face any setbacks in his recovery.
The Leafs begin their four-game road trip with an afternoon matinee against the Blues where you catch the action on Sportsnet for a 1 p.m. start.

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