If three games comprise the beginning of a losing skid in the NHL, the Leafs look to avoid their first of the season with a win tonight in Winnipeg. The Buds fought for a hard-earned point against Pittsburgh on Saturday, but this is a particularly important game for the Leafs to continue their recommended habit of stopping losing skids before they start. The 9th-placed Jets are five points behind the Leafs with a game in hand. A win and the Leafs put themselves seven clear and maintain a healthy gap on the chasers of the playoff race. A loss in regulation and the Leafs’ hold on a spot in the top 8 starts looking a bit more tenuous.
The key differences between tonight and the Leafs-Jets matchup on Feb. 7 (3-2 Leaf win featuring Kessel‘s slump-breaking snipe/first of the season) include the return of Dustin Byfgulien and the overall improved play of the Jets over their last 10 games (6-3-1).
Interestingly, after staying in the thick of the race on the back of their outstanding record at home last season, the Jets are 4-6 at the MTS Centre so far this season. They did come out flying against the Leafs a month ago, however, and a visit by the Leafs always inspires some extra energy out of a rival Canadian home crowd. The Leafs may need to weather another early storm.
James Reimer will get the start, looking to earn his second win in his second return to his hometown this season. He is a remarkable 6-0-1 in his last seven starts.
The word is that Matt Frattin will move up onto a line with Grabovski and Kulemin. Not sure what the logic is behind that, except for maybe giving the unit an additional offensive weapon to try to jumpstart its slowed offensive production. Presumably the line will still be starting two thirds of its shifts in the defensive zone. One possible option to free Grabovski up for some more offensive opportunity may be to put together a second checking line on line #4 consisting of Komarov and McClement and having it take a share of the defensive zone starts. That will become more of an option when Joffrey Lupul returns.
Let’s hope the Leafs, after a couple of hard fought losses to good teams, take forward the positives, give a more consistent effort across three periods, and pick up a key two points against a beatable opponent.
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