The Toronto Maple Leafs finish up their road trip against the defending champion Washington Capitals tonight in what will be the start of a string of games against tough competition.
The Maple Leafs largely dominated the opening 40 minutes before parking the bus a little bit to end the game against the Red Wings on Thursday, a 5-3 win that was their fourth victory in five games against non-playoff opponents from 2017-18 to start the new season.
That run of weak opposition will end starting tonight against a Capitals team that, coming off of their Cup win, is off to a pretty good start to the year and shouldn’t be a sleeping giant; they’re coming off of their first regulation loss of the season in a blowout loss to the New Jersey Devils. All of their games have been either blowouts — one given (in their season opener versus Boston) and one taken (most recently against New Jersey) — or high-scoring shootouts, so the explosive potential of tonight’s game is definitely real.
The Capitals have got the one-two punch of two elite centers in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom that is the backbone of a long playoff run in this league, as well as a 1-2-3 rounded out capably by Lars Eller. This will be the first team — and one of few teams — that the Leafs face this year that can actually go toe to toe with them as far as matching up down the middle of the ice.
With TJ Oshie on his wing, it was the Backstrom line’s ability to play matchup minutes against top lines throughout the playoffs, take on a lot of defensive zone starts, and come out on top over a seven-game series that was a big part of the Capitals’ Cup success. We’ll likely see Backstrom get the assignment of John Tavares and his line, while Auston Matthews’ line will see quite a bit of Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, who enjoyed the shelter provided by Oshie and Backstrom’s ability to go head-to-head so effectively throughout their Cup run. Good measuring stick opportunities here for the Leafs.
As far as the lineup, Andreas Johnsson re-enters the mix looking to get his season back on track, with Tyler Ennis making way on the fourth line. Igor Ozhiganov will play on the third pairing with Travis Dermott as the rotation continues between him and Martin Marincin.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the measuring stick game against the Cup champs:
Obviously, they’ve got a big team. They’ve got an experienced team. They’re last year’s Cup champs and they’ve played well with the exception of last game. It is going to be a good test for our team and we’re excited to play. We want to spend in the o-zone. That’s the best way.
Babcock on the Capitals’ depth down the middle:
They’ve got good players and we’ve got good players. One of the reasons you win in the national league is you are deeper down the middle than other teams. I thought they were the deepest team in the league that way last year. Kuznetsov, Backstrom and Eller — they’re all elite players. I don’t know who the one is and who the two is, but they’re good. We are in a situation, as we mature as a group, where we are set up like that as well.
Babcock on substituting Andreas Johnsson in for Tyler Ennis:
He didn’t come in here to play with Matthews. He came in here because Nylander wasn’t here and he got to play with him. This is exactly what we expect. He played good last game. Johnsson has been out for two, so Johnsson is going in.
This is what we expected. To say that he hasn’t done anything is wrong. This is what we expected from him. He’s done a good job for us. He’ll be back in.
We just want [Ennis] to do what he does. We’re happy with him. He is a good person. He’s skated good. He has made plays. He has done his thing. We have been happy with him. He is just a veteran forward who has played in the league and knows how to play. It is not always easy to be in his spot, but he knows the spot he’s in. That’s what we signed him for. I think it is going really well for him.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#12 Patrick Marleau – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#26 Par Lindholm – #43 Nazem Kadri – #28 Connor Brown
#32 Josh Leivo – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #18 Andreas Johnsson
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #92 Igor Ozhiganov
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Scratched: Tyler Ennis, Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, William Nylander (unsigned RFA)
Washington Capitals Projected Lines
#8 Alex Ovechkin – #92 Evgeny Kuznetsov – #10 Brett Connolly
#13 Jakub Vrana – #19 Nicklas Backstrom – #77 T.J Oshie
#65 Andre Burakovsky – #20 Lars Eller – #18 Chandler Stephenson
#23 Dimitrj Jaskin – #26 Nic Dowd – #25 Devante Smith-Pelly
#6 Michal Kempny – #74 John Carlson
#9 Dmitri Orlov – #2 Matt Niskanen
#44 Brooks Orpik – #29 Christian Djoos
#70 Braden Holtby
#1 Pheonix Copley