The Toronto Maple Leafs (9-5-0) will look to get their home form on track tonight when they host the 6-7-1 Vegas Golden Knights at the Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m., TSN4).
The hockey Gods are balancing out the universe after the Knights’ Cinderella run to the Cup Finals last season, as Vegas is way under-performing their shot metrics to start the year. Their PDO (shooting plus save percentages) has taken a massive dip to last place in the league, and despite ranking third in the NHL in expected goals and CF% (per Corsica), they’re currently third last in GF% and sit second last in the Pacific Division.
In addition to some inconsistency between the pipes early in the season, part of the issue has been the team’s over-reliance on its top line due to the absence of consistent secondary scoring. Alex Tuch has five points in six games and currently sits fifth in team scoring despite missing eight of the team’s 14 games due to an injury at the end of preseason; he’s currently ahead of new acquisition Max Pacioretty, who returns from injury tonight for Vegas after putting just two goals (and just two points total) on the board in his first 10 games with the team. Not helping matters is the injury to summer signing Paul Stastny, leaving the Golden Knights a little thin behind the breakout line of 2017-18, Jonathan Marchessault – William Karlsson – Reilly Smith.
Part of the Knights’ identity last season was their ability to roll four lines with little drop-off and maintain their pace of play over 60-minute games as well or better than anyone else in the league. Their ice time reflected that, with their top nine forwards all tightly bunched in average ice time. Struggling for enough offense and chasing games more often early on this season, Gerard Gallant has leaned more heavily on that top unit, with all three of Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith clocking over 20 minutes per game to start 2018-19.
The challenge for the Leafs tonight is nonetheless significant knowing how well Vegas has dictated the run of play despite their inability to end up on the right end of enough scorelines early on. Their up-tempo game, hard-working identity, and ability to cycle and grind over four lines is something that will test the Leafs‘ readiness to compete over 60 minutes.
The Leafs are returning home after maintaining their perfect road record with a highly-impressive 60-minute performance against Pittsburgh and need to translate that kind of effort back at home, where they’re currently 3-5-0 on the season just one year after finishing 29-10-2 on home ice (Anthony took a detailed look at why that is earlier today). It’s been a point of emphasis for the coaching staff to get off to better first periods at home, given they’ve scored first just once in eight games so far this season, and that’s a good place to start tonight.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the Golden Knights:
I thought last year, at playoff time, their speed through the middle was as good as anybody in hockey and we expect the same tonight, so it should be a fun game.
Babcock on the team’s play the last two games:
Pretty much the same performance as against Dallas. We dominated territorially, got the puck to the net. The puck goes in right now on the road, I think we’re about 16% in the shooting department versus 6% [at home]. So as much as it looks like we’ve done nothing at home, that’s not the case at all. We’ve actually played some good games. I wasn’t very happy with the Calgary game and didn’t think we played good against St. Louis. Other than that, I’ve liked our games.
Babcock on the team’s tendency towards stretch breakouts, in reference to the Kadri flip pass to Kapanen against Pittsburgh:
I just think, if you look at the league, the league is up so tight on you now. Everyone talks about entries and stuff like that. Three-quarters of the time, there are no entries because the people are on top of you so hard — so the space is behind people. Good d-zone coverage, good pop by Gardiner into Naz, and then Naz made the play with speed off the puck. You know, it works better for the guys who skate good.
Golden Knights head coach Gerrard Gallant on the team’s puck luck this season:
We’ve played better than our record is right now, to be honest with you. We’ve had a couple of bad games. Everything seems to be a little tougher than it was last year. Last year, we got those breaks, we got those easier goals — the puck luck was going our way. This year, we need to push through it and play a little better. We’re getting lots of shots and lots of chances. It’s not going in the net as much as it did last year.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#21 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #26 Par Lindholm – #28 Connor Brown
#63 Tyler Ennis – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #32 Josh Leivo
#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: Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Trevor Moore
Unsigned: William Nylander
Injured: Auston Matthews (shoulder)
Vegas Golden Knights Projected Lines
#81 Jonathan Marchessault – #71 William Karlsson – #19 Reilly Smith
#67 Max Pacioretty – #56 Erik Huala – #89 Alex Tuch
#92 Thomas Nosek – #21 Cody Eakin – #38 Thomas Hyka
#28 Will Carrier – #41 Pierre Edouard-Bellemare – #75 Ryan Reaves
#27 Shea Theodore– #5 Deryk Engelland
#3 Brayden McNabb – #6 Colin Miller
#22 Nick Holden – #77 Brad Hunt
#29 Marc-Andre Fleury
#30 Malcolm Subban
Injured: Paul Stastny
Suspended: Nate Schmidt