Another Canadian divisional rival is in Toronto tonight as the Leafs look to go 2-0 to start the year on the first Hockey Night in Canada of the season.
The Leafs likely would have been just fine with the extra practice time over the three-day break considering the first game of the year often leaves a lot to be desired — and did in this case — from a structure standpoint. It’s no secret the Leafs need to dictate play more in the offensive zone, with an emphasis on cleaner zone exits and improved forechecking pressure.
Babcock will ice the exact same lineup as Wednesday, which consists of the same set of lines that have been in place basically since the start of camp. That’s despite continued admissions from Babcock that the Nazem Kadri line (with Josh Leivo and Connor Brown) is not clicking through preseason or to start the regular season. In fairness, the Leafs didn’t really have a single line going at 5v5 in the season opener versus Montreal. Patience appears to be the order of the day with Babcock, and understandably so this early in the year.
On the blue line, Ron Hainsey’s game will continue to be under the microscope early in the year, with most fans seriously questioning his ability to play significant, tough minutes at 5-on-5. Presumably, with it being so early in the season and the lack of veterans on the blue line, Hainsey’s going to have quite a bit of rope from the Leafs head coach. To be fair to Hainsey, outside of the bottom pair of Travis Dermott and Igor Ozhiganov, no one on the Leafs blue line had a game to be proud of versus Montreal.
The Senators enter the game coming off of a 4-3 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in their home opener on Thursday. Rookie defenseman Max Lajoie gave the Ottawa market a much-needed injection of hope with a goal and an assist in his debut. The fanbase has been drawing some mild optimism out of the fact that the team has added some skilled youth (Lajoie, Thomas Chabot, Alex Formenton, Colin White, Brady Tkachuk) to the fold as well as the indication from Guy Boucher that the team wants to play a more aggressive, up-tempo game this season.
That said, this is obviously a Senators team that is all kinds of vulnerable. They gave up the lead in the third period versus Chicago playing familiar passive-with-the-lead Boucher hockey. Their post-Karlsson era defense is inexperienced and overmatched, with Mark Borowiecki and Cody Ceci taking on a majority of the shutdown minutes against the Patrick Kane line at 5v5 in the season opener. A key injury down the middle to JG Pageau also leaves them shallow at center ice behind Matt Duchene.
Especially on home ice, that means there will be plenty of opportunity for a team as deep as the Leafs to exploit mismatches and get their season off and running after a bit of a disappointing game one — not results-wise, but process-wise — against Montreal.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the blue line:
They’ve got to get better. We’ve got lots of young guys there that are getting better. Really, when you look at it, Hains is the only one, who, in my mind, is where he’s at. The rest of them have got to improve for us to have success. It’s important to have a real good backend in today’s game. You want it to be as mobile as you can, but they’ve got to be able to defend at the same time. That’s what we’re looking for.
Babcock on Nazem Kadri’s deployment and not using him in the matchup role right now:
I’m not going to do it for a bit. I’m going to do it eventually here. I’m just going to figure out my lines and get everyone on the ice as much as I can. If the situation in the game dictates that, then I’ll have… Naz has had a different type of line than he has this year, too, so that reflects on that as well.
Right now, the way we are going, we are trying to get our people on the ice as much as we possibly can and see them all in all situations. Naz played a fair bit of wing last game and will after all specialty teams a little bit so we can get his minutes to a level that is good for him. Right now, we are more just doing what we have to do to get our team playing.
Babcock on Kadri’s line at 5v5:
It’s just a work in progress. They’re just figuring that all out. Brownie has got to do what Brownie does. He’s got to be on the forecheck, he’s got to be under sticks, get to the nets, track, penalty kill, and do all of those things. Leivs just figuring out what he can do and if he plays every day. The biggest thing with him is that he’s got to work every shift. If he does that without the puck, the things with the puck will handle themselves.
Babcock on how long a coach budgets for letting players get used to each other and figure out if something is going to work or not:
In general, sometimes you don’t have any tolerance for it, and sometimes you have more. When you think something is going to work, you stick with it longer. In our situation, Hyman was out, so he wasn’t up to speed. You look at stuff like that.
I don’t think we have played at a level we are capable of at any time so far. I think we are in there as a group, not individually. We’ll just keep watching.
Babcock on Par Lindholm:
He’s ultra smart. Good edges. Real good defensively. You just trust the guy. He makes plays. He’s real good on the backhand. We think he has a chance to be a good player for us and fit into our group nicely because he can provide a role for us.
Not many guys come in from Europe and end up over 50% in their first game in the faceoff circle. It just doesn’t happen. You usually get whacked for about a month. That was good to see, too.
Guy Boucher on the younger look to the team and the work in progress on defense:
What we have this year is we are able to have more speed. We have some kids who have energy so that helps the identity that we want to have. Having said that, we feel that on defense is the place where it is harder to hide the lack of experience. We know we are putting in a lot of effort not just with the young guys but the older guys to be able to complement those young guys well.
To tell you that we have figured it out yet would be a lie. I think we need to try different things. Being on the road is where our weaknesses can be exposed, obviously. Right now, we are trying to find pairings that will help us buy time until we’ve everybody has got enough experience to be able to defend against anybody. We know we are not there yet, but we saw our guys grow through training camp and do a good pretty job in the first game.
We really love our kids. The guys are hard working, high-end prospects that just need some time to come into their own.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#12 Patrick Marleau – #34 Auston Matthews – #63 Tyler Ennis
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#32 Josh Leivo – #43 Nazem Kadri – #28 Connor Brown
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #26 Par Lindholm – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #92 Igor Ozhighanov
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Scratched: Frederik Gauthier, Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, William Nylander (unsigned RFA)
Ottawa Senators Projected Lines
#18 Ryan Dzingel – #95 Matt Duchene – #9 Bobby Ryan
#11 Zach Smith – #36 Colin White – #61 Mark Stone
#32 Alex Formenton – #71 Chris Tierney– #89 Mikkel Boedker
#89 Max McCormick – #10 Tom Pyatt – #56 Magnus Paajarvi
#72 Thomas Chabot – #2 Dylan DeMelo
#74 Mark Borowiecki– #6 Chris Wideman
#Maxime Lajoie – #5 Cody Ceci
#41 Craig Anderson
#1 Mike Condon
Injuries: Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Brady Tkachuk