John-Michael Liles joins Leafs defence against Penguins
DAVE HILSON, QMI Agency
|Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles has seen teams collapse before. Last season Liles was a member of the Colorado Avalanche when they went on a 6-28-2 skid. (DAVE ABEL/Toronto Sun)
TORONTO - Maple Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles has his work cut out for him.
After being a healthy scratch for 12 consecutive games, the diminutive D-man will have to get back to speed quickly against Sidney Crosby and the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Liles is being brought in in favour of Mike Kostka who has played in all 27 games for the Leafs this season.
“You try to keep things simple for the most part,” Liles said of what he will try to accomplish in his first game back since Feb. 16. “If an opportunity presents itself to join the play or add some offence to our attack I don’t think I’ll hesitate, but, at the same time, first and foremost it’s playing defence and making sure we eliminate opportunities for Pittsburgh.”
Eliminating opportunities won’t be easy against the Penguins (19-8-0) who have won six in a row and beat Toronto in a 5-4 shootout on Saturday. The Leafs (15-11-1) are looking to rebound from a poor performance against the Jets in Winnipeg that resulted in a 5-2 loss on Tuesday night.
“I’ve been a healthy scratch before, not consecutively for this stretch but I have been a healthy scratch before and it’s something you learn from and you reflect,” Liles said of sitting in the press box for so long. “You go back and you watch film and see what you can do differently or what you can do better. That’s part of being a professional. By not playing maybe I was able to scrutinize the film a little more than normal. It’s just a matter of always trying to re-evaluate improve.”
There has been speculation that the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Liles, who a little over a year ago signed a four-year contract extension with the Leafs, isn’t big enough or tough enough to fit into coach Randy Carlyle’s system. But the puck-moving defenceman assured that isn’t the case, saying Carlyle didn’t expect him to be out on the ice roughing people up.
But there’s no doubt that Carlyle wouldn’t be in a rush to get Liles back into the lineup if Toronto hadn’t lost three in a row and allowed 17 regulation-time goals in its past four games. It will be a fast pace that Liles will have to readjust to against Pittsburgh but Carlyle probably felt that something had to be done to change Toronto’s fortunes.
Although Liles said he didn’t know who he would be paired with, it will likely be Carl Gunnarsson, who Kostka would probably have skated alongside.
After the morning skate Kostka would neither confirm nor deny that he was sitting but that seems to be the case as he was one of the last players off the ice at the optional workout. Kostka just laughed when asked if he was playing or not.
“One of the things I’ve been working on is trying to create more offence,” Kostka said of his game. “It was a big part of my game in the American League (with the Marlies) and they’ve (Leafs) have given me opportunities on the power play and in offensive situations so one thing I’ve been working on is to try to get more shots through.”
Liles said it has been tough sitting but added that he has tried to learn from the experience.
“It’s never easy, every guy in this room is a competitor, there’s a reason why we are where we are cause you have that drive to play, you want to play,” he said. “I’m no different than anybody else. But at the same time, it’s a matter of staying sharp physically and supporting the team. Just making sure you are helping guys out when you can even if you’re not playing you’re still apart of the team. It’s not an easy situation to be in but we have a lot of capable guys in this room and unfortunately there are going to be guys that aren’t playing and I was one of those guys recently.
“For me, it’s going to be business as usual just make sure I’m focussing on my game. I’ve played a lot of games in this league and hopefully I’ll play a lot more. It’s just a matter of focussing and being ready,” Liles said.
One break the Leafs are getting against the Penguins is that star forward Evgeni Malkin is still sidelined with an upper body injury.
“I don’t have an update on what his exercise level was today,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “He was a week to two weeks and that’s coming up to this weekend, but at this time we (don’t know about his return date.) There’s no replacing that type of centreman or that type of player on your team, there’s an adjustment on the power play as well. We go to two defenceman instead of having the four forwards and Malkin on the ice.”
Though Ben Scrivens, who will get the call in goal for Toronto after not starting in five of the past six games, will still have his hands for with the NHL’s leading scorer, Sidney Crosby.