Happy Boxing Day, hockey fans!
It’s a great day for hockey here in Leafland. Â The World Junior Championship Tournament, featuring the Leafs’ highly-touted Nazem Kadri, officially gets underway this afternoon as Canada takes on Latvia. Â Following the tournament opener, we are in for a treat Leafs take on their long-standing rival, the Montreal Canadiens. Â And for those who are able to remain awake after all the holiday parties of the past two days, the Edmonton Oilers will visit the Vancouver Canucks in what should be a typical Saturday night Western Conference barn-burner. Â Does it get any better?
Now, onto the Leafs-Habs preview:
Tonight’s matchup will be the fourth of six meetings this season between these bitter rivals, with the Leafs sporting a 1-0-2 record in the previous three matchups. Â You will recall that the Canadiens beat the Leafs in Toronto, 4-3 in overtime, to open the season, and again 5-4 in a shootout in Montreal on October 31st. Â However, in their most recent meeting, goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and Joey MacDonald teamed up to shut down Montreal in a hard-fought 3-0 victory.
According to leftwinglock.com, Jaroslav Halak will get the nod for The Habs while Jonas Gustavsson starts in net for the Leafs. Â Halak has been sensational for the Canadiens of late, stopping an incredible 133 of 137 shots in Montreal’s past three games, all victories. Â Gustavsson has been solid for the Leafs, stopping 72 of 77 shots against in his past three starts, but has only managed to earn one victory (1-1-1 record) during that span.
Players of Note
Andrei Markov’s recent return to the Canadiens’ lineup has coincided with their winning streak, with Markov recording three goals (all PP) and an assist during those three games. Â The best method of reducing his effectiveness is to take away his shot from the point by getting into the shooting lanes. A willingness to get black and blue is a must, for Markov is quite willing to blast his howitzer into a crowd.
Phil Kessel is enduring his first extended slump as a member of the Leafs, with no points in his past four games after recording 21 in his first 22. Â Naturally, Leafs Nation is teetering toward a full-scale panic fueled by the desperate-to-say-I-told-you-so Toronto media … which conveniently ignores in all its reporting the fact that every player, no matter how talented, endures this sort of slump from time to time. Â Â The Canadiens are a much less physical team than those the Leafs have faced recently, which should enable Kessel to maximize his speed and find more room to operate than he has had of late.
Keys to the Game
The Leafs have only faced Halak once this season, during the shootout loss, and were able to manage four goals during that outing. Â Halak is a goaltender who runs hot and cold; when he is hot he will steal games all by himself (as evidenced by 133 saves in the past three games – 44.3 per, to be precise). Â It is not enough to simply pepper him with shots from 25 – 35 feet out — to beat Halak, the Leafs will have to commit to having bodies in front of the net to create screens, deflections, and rebound opportunities. Â An early goal is a must if the Leafs wish to throw Halak off his game.
Similarly, in the defensive zone, the Toronto players must commit to providing a physical presence in front of Gustavsson. Â The Canadiens are a team built on speed, and the Leafs’ defenders will do their goaltenders no favors by chasing the puck instead of covering the zone (e.g. Buffalo’s OT winner on Dec 21st). Â The team must play to its strengths, which means preventing the open man from receiving the puck, rather than chase the puck around in a fruitless, energy-consuming game of keepaway by the opposition.
Earlier in the season, the Leafs’ inability to win on home ice dominated the news. Â Recently, they have figured out how win at home but have struggled with four straight losses on the road. Â So perhaps the good news is that the game tonight is in Toronto at the ACC, where the Leafs have earned 11 of a possible 14 points (to date) during the month of December.
October Home 0-4-1
October Road 1-3-3
November Home 2-3-2
November Road 3-2-1
December Home 5-1-1
December Road 2-4-0
WJC, Canada v. Latvia:
3:30pm pregame, 4pm game start, TSN
NHL, Montreal at Toronto:
6:30pm pregame, 7pm game start, CBC
NHL, Edmonton at Vancouver:
pregame to follow Leafs broadcast, 10pm game start, CBC
Unable to catch the games on television? Catch the live stream online!
WJC: watch the game, streaming live, online at tsn.ca
NHL: watch Hockey Night In Canada, streaming live, online at cbc.ca/sports/hockey/
Enjoy today’s fantastic lineup of games, everyone! Â Looking forward to your thoughts as always,