Coming off of four wins in their last five, the Toronto Maple Leafs stare down their toughest opponent of the California road trip in the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks tonight at the SAP Center (10:30 p.m., Sportsnet Ontario).
While they’ve only won 10 of 19 games (10-6-3), the Sharks have still largely been a powerhouse this year at 5v5. After 19 games, they sit second in the league in Corsi For percentage and first in scoring chance share. We’ve seen over the years that this is a team that can control play at a high level and execute a puck-possession system very effectively with its depth and overall mix of size, skill, and speed.
With a battle-hardened veteran core, this is a Sharks team that can beat you in a lot of different ways. Couture-Thornton down the middle, with Pavelski able to shift over into the middle when need be, is a big reason why, not to mention Antti Suomela, the 24-year-old Finnish import who’s put fantastic numbers up this year against opposition bottom lines. We talk about center depth a lot in the NHL and the value of depth at the position; you won’t find too many better 1-2 matchups at center in the league right now than we’ll see here tonight, even with Auston Matthews missing from the Leafs lineup.
That’s to say nothing of San Jose’s blue line. Pete DeBoer has split up his three elite pieces on the back-end in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns, and Erik Karlsson over three separate pairings; after experimenting with a Vlasic – Karlsson pairing, the vaunted shutdown pair of Vlasic and Justin Braun is back together, freeing up Burns and Karlsson to take advantage of secondary opposition as two of the best roving defensemen in the league. The Leafs‘ forwards will need to be above their guys and making sure they’re not allowing the likes of Burns and Karlsson to beat them up the ice when they jump up offensively; both have the green light to take off at every opportunity.
There’s been a bit of concern among some of the fan base due to the fact that Karlsson still hasn’t scored a goal with the club, but he’s still regularly putting up three-plus shots per game and dominating his shot and chance share, so it’s hard to believe it’s anything other than a run of bad luck to begin his Sharks’ tenure.
With a perennially reliable high-end starter in Martin Jones between the pipes, this is a Sharks team that ticks all the boxes down the middle, on the blue line, and in net. After striking out on John Tavares as the presumed runner-up in the sweepstakes, they added Karlsson to their mix via trade — after acquiring Evander Kane last season — and are very much all in on a Cup run this season. It’ll be a great test for the Maple Leafs tonight.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the Sharks:
They can really forecheck and they can get on top of you. They are as deep a team as there is probably. When you think of the matchup on the back with Vlasic and Braun, that lets Karlsson and Burns roam all over the rink. I think they’re a real good team and built [to win] now, so it’ll be a good matchup for us.
Babcock on how Andreas Johnsson’s game has improved:
I think what happened is he’s got his legs going already and then the next thing that came was some confidence. At the start when he wasn’t skating, it hurt him. The NHL takes the confidence out of you in a hurry. That line in general has got to be feeling real good. Even before they scored, they were playing real well. Now that they’re scoring, it makes us a deeper team.
Babcock on Auston Matthews’ recovery:
Doesn’t matter where you are when you come back. It’s the NHL. It’s a fitness league. Everyone else is bumping and grinding and you’ve got to get back up to pace. Right away, all eyes are on you and how you play. So, the more time he can spend getting ready, the better. That’s what’s great about a shoulder injury versus a leg injury or a head injury.
Patrick Marleau on the video of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews dancing to the YMCA in the car with Marleau’s kids:
That’s just normal around those guys. That’s just a normal day.
They like getting my kids going pretty good. We love having them around, that’s for sure.
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)
San Jose Sharks Projected Lines
#28 Timo Meier – #39 Logan Couture – #8 Joe Pavelski
#20 Marcus Sorensen – #19 Joe Thornton – #62 Kevin Labanc
#9 Evander Kane – #40 Antti Suomela – #27 Joonas Donksoi
#23 Barclay Goodrow – #60 Rourke Chartier– #68 Melker Karlsson
#Joakim Ryan – #88 Brent Burns
#4 Brenden Dillon – #65 Erik Karlsson
#44 Marc-Edouard Vlasic– #61 Justin Braun
#31 Martin Jones
#30 Aaron Dell