After sweeping their trip out West and earning five wins in six games over the last two weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs are back at home to host the Metropolitan Division-leading Columbus Blue Jackets (7 p.m., Sportsnet Ontario).
Outside of the second half of back-to-backs, where the Leafs lost 5-1 to the Bruins and then squeaked out an overtime win against the Ducks, they’ve been rolling along like an elite team of late, briefly moving into first in the league after Friday’s win. Over their last five, the Leafs‘ offense is clicking at over five goals a game and their goaltenders are stopping 97% of the pucks they face. While things may come down to earth a little bit scoring wise from where they’ve been the last two weeks, it’s been majorly encouraging to see the Leafs manufacture so many complete performances from the entire lineup — one that is still missing Auston Matthews and William Nylander.
From where he was through September and October, where he looked a step behind where we might have expected him to be after his performance in both the NHL and AHL playoffs last year, Andreas Johnsson has returned to form of late. He hasn’t put a ton of scoring up and attracted the headlines like Kapanen, Rielly, Marner and others have recently, but he looks more like the quick, intelligent, and tenacious winger with some offensive ability that we saw last season. Taken in combination with the recent play of Josh Leivo, Tyler Ennis, Connor Brown and Par Lindholm, the Leafs bottom six has given them quality minutes of late.
On the Columbus side of things, they have won four of their last five games and have scored 23 goals over that span. Like the Leafs, their shooting percentage and save percentages have been sky high recently, as their top line has been dominant and starter Sergei Bobrovsky has been lights out, sporting an even higher save percentage than Frederik Andersen his last five games.
The challenge isn’t dissimilar to the ones the Leafs faced against San Jose and Anaheim in that Columbus is a team that plays a heavier forechecking style of game with an active, mobile defense core. The Leafs will have the speed advantage if they can execute as well as they did during their road trip, particularly in the San Jose game. They exited their own zone quickly before the forecheck could get on top of them, played with pace through the neutral zone, and manufactured a number of extended offensive-zone cycle shifts. That allowed their skill and speed to take over.
It will be key for the Leafs to earn translate some of their dominant performances on the road over onto home ice, where they’re currently sporting a 5-5-0 record. It’s not a question of puck luck or matchup management, really — they’ve just simply been a better team in almost all facets of the game away from home so far. Considering their franchise high wins record on home ice last year, you have to figure this starts to correct itself at some point. No better time to start than tonight.
Game Day Quotes
John Tavares on what Jake Gardiner brings to the team:
Obviously, his skating ability is a great part of his game. It’s very unique. It’s different than the way a lot of guys use that ability. Just the way he’s able to draw people in and find the open lane, his hockey sense. He sees the game extremely well and reads the play extremely well. I’ve noticed that a lot in practice. You think you have a lane or some space, but he’ll just kind of closes it off or knock pucks out of the air.
Tavares on the play that led to his OT winner against the Ducks:
Yeah, I don’t know what I was skating so hard up the ice for to try to get involved. Obviously, Mitch’s ability to slow the play down and draw defenders to him and find the open man. Then, obviously, Mo’s ability to find the open ice — his shot is dead on right now. When you see the play go the other way, it’s nice to see two guys ahead of you with that kind of opportunity.
Babcock on the team’s recent hot stretch:
Initially, it took us a couple of games to get going, but then we’ve been fairly consistent in that time. It’s been a good period for us.
I like the amount of points we have. Now you put them in the bank and collect interest. Let’s go get some more. The bottom line is we’ve got a game tonight, so what you’ve done in the first 20 [doesn’t matter]. It’s kind of like segments that are over when they’re over.
Babcock on Morgan Rielly’s historic start and where he is as a player:
What I’d tell you now is it’s kind of like playing in Moose Jaw for him. I think [Marner] playing in the NHL is like playing in London, but it usually takes guys a long time. When you get to just relax and come and play, I think your skill set comes out. He’s still learning. Playing defense is way harder than playing wing in the NHL. It takes more time; just the idea of boxing out and facing the puck, knowing when to go and when not, and all of those things. He’s done a real good job. Obviously, he’s an elite player for us.
Babcock on Kasperi Kapanen:
Kapanen is one of those guys — in the AHL, he didn’t look this good. He just didn’t. I saw him lots. He’s obviously got a skillset of speed, he can shoot the puck, he’s a much bigger guy, and he’s worked on his body over a three year period. I don’t think he got to the NHL too soon. When you get to the NHL too soon, you never score. I think it’s a real good thing that he took his time getting here and we helped him take his time gettning here, and now he’s a good player for us.
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)
Columbus Blue Jackets Projected Lines
#9 Artemi Panarin – # 18 Pierre-Luc Dubois– #13 Cam Atkinson
#71 Nick Foligno – #38 Boone Jenner – #77 Josh Anderson
#17 Brandon Dubinsky – #10 Alexander Wennberg – #91 Anthony Duclair
#45 Lukas Sedlak – #20 Riley Nash – #37 Markus Hannikainen
#27 Ryan Murray – #3 Seth Jones
#65 Markus Nutivaara – #58 David Savard
#8 Zach Werenski – #4 Scott Harrington
#72 Sergei Bobrovsky
#70 Joonas Korpisalo