Tonight’s tilt inside the Phillips Arena has more intrigue than your typical clash between a pair of non-playoff opponents.
The Atlanta Thrashers and Toronto Maple Leafs are predictably below-average teams this season, placed 11th and 13th in the Eastern Conference respectively, but have been playing some quality hockey as of late. The Thrashers have won two of their last three outings while the Maple Leafs have won four of their past five. Also setting a back-drop to the affair is a history of bad blood between the pair dating back to when the Thrashers were actually a pretty decent club under Bob Hartley. Most recently, in a 6-3 loss to the Thrashers on November 25th inside the ACC, the Thrashers ran roughshod over the Leafs physically and Jason Blake suffered a concussion at the hands of Colby Armstrong. After Ian White was the lone player to stand up for his teammates, Ron Wilson deemed it fit to recall some bellicosity in the form of Andre Deveaux. From the sounds of it, Ian White is ready to renew acquaintances with Ilya Kovalchuk, with whom he quarreled all that evening.
Additionally, the Maple Leafs are expected to debut Justin Pogge between the posts as general manager Brian Burke looks to test his NHL mettle and get a sense of where he stands in terms of his goaltending situation going forward. After posting much improved sophomore numbers last year in the AHL, Pogge’s struggled this season behind a weaker Marlies team, posting a .890 save percentage over 22 appearances. Most signs point to Pogge being far from ready, but the 22-year-old has a chance to start changing that perception with a strong debut performance.
The Maple Leafs will look to ride the momentum gained off of one of their better all-around performances of the season in a 7-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Nik Antropov led the Leafs’ attack with a goal and two assists and six other players scored in the team’s best offensive showing of the season. Defensively, the Leafs allowed only 20 shots against and impressively quieted the duo of Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin save for Malkin’s marker midway through the first frame.
Offense hasn’t been much of a problem for the Maple Leafs despite a lack of star-power up front. A strong by-committee effort from the offense leaves the Leafs eighth league-wide in goals for at 101 on the season. The Leafs’ power-play has played a key role in the team’s efficient offensive production. The Leafs’ PP sits ninth league-wide at a 21.8% success rate. In their last five games, the Leafs have bulged the twine on 21 occasions. The Thrashers are one of few clubs worse than the Leafs defensively having allowed 117 goals against so far this season, only good enough for a 29th league-wide ranking.
Kari Lehtonen will get the call between the posts for the Thrashers. The Leafs have had Lehtonen’s number throughout the Finn’s thus far career, beating him in four of their five meetings.
As always, the Leafs will have to keep a close eye on Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russian scored in Atlanta’s 6-3 thrashing of the Leafs back on November 25th and that was with shutdown defenseman Luke Schenn in the line-up. It should be fun to watch Ian White attempt to get Kovalchuk off his game. All time, Kovalchuk has posted 21 points in 23 appearances against the Buds.
With a win, the 13-13-4 Leafs will rise above the .500 mark for the first time since early October.