Auston Matthews makes his much-anticipated return to the lineup tonight as the Toronto Maple Leafs look to make it six wins in a row at home when they host the San Jose Sharks at Scotiabank Arena (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).

As it was an optional skate this morning, we’ll have to wait and see what the line rushes will be in warm ups before we have confirmation on the new combinations.

Prior to the Matthews’ injury back on October 27th, the lines looked like this:

#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 – #63 Tyler Ennis

We know that Frederik Gauthier will be a healthy scratch, as confirmed by Mike Babcock this morning. The route of minimal disruption — with the aim of easing Matthews back in — would be to simply pop Auston Matthews in between Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson, move Par Lindholm down in between Tyler Ennis and Josh Leivo, and leave the top six of Hyman – Tavares – Marner / Marleau – Kadri – Kapanen in tact.

#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Patrick Marleau –#43 Nazem Kadri – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #28 Connor Brown
#32 Josh Leivo – #26 Par Lindholm – #63 Tyler Ennis

Babcock could also go back to something closer to what the lines were prior to Matthews’ injury:

#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#21 Patrick Marleau – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #43 Nazem Kadri – #28 Connor Brown
#63 Tyler Ennis – #26 Par Lindholm – #32 Josh Leivo

That would mean three new line combinations will be in place as the Leafs look to keep the momentum in their sails following a stretch of nine wins in 12 games without Matthews, a month in which the team found great balance throughout the lineup and improved significantly as far as the structure to its game.

The Leafs will have the Sharks in a back-to-back situation tonight and if they can keep their four-line balance in place with the new line combos, whatever they may be, it should enable them to skate the Sharks — who played 60+ minutes in an overtime loss to Buffalo last night — into the ice.

That’s exactly what the Leafs did in their visit to San Jose earlier this month with how quickly they exited their zone and their overall execution in the transition game, but the Sharks are a formidable opponent with the ability to control the pace of play if they can assert their forecheck and five-man cycle on the opposition, which they do as well as just about anyone in the league (currently leading the league in Shots For Percentage, third in Corsi For Percentage).

As we saw in the first game of the season series in San Jose a few weeks ago, head coach Pete DeBoer has three elite pieces on the back-end in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns, and Erik Karlsson split up over three separate pairings. The shutdown pair of Vlasic and Justin Braun frees up Burns and Karlsson to try to exploit secondary matchups as two of the best attacking defensemen in the league. The Leafs‘ forwards will need to be diligent about staying 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.

In a strange subplot to this matchup, the Kadri vs. Thornton storyline that featured prominently at the drop of the puck in the first Leafs vs. Sharks game — when Barclay Goodrow chased down Kadri and tried to fight him, leading to a costly penalty for the Sharks — has had its flames fanned again before tonight’s game.

Pete DeBoer later said that the grudge is now in the “rear-view mirror,” but they’re bizarre comments nonetheless considering Joe Thornton appeared to initiate the original fight in question. Perhaps the inference is that Kadri’s slash to the leg was offside/disrespectful, but again, Thornton threw the first shot there off the initial faceoff.

It’s clear that Kadri continues to live rent-free in the Sharks’ heads.


Game Day Quotes

Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer on Nazem Kadri’s fight with Joe Thornton last season:

I love Naz. I drafted him. We won an OHL championship together. I love him. I love how he plays. I think wit Joe Thornton, all I would say is I hope when Naz is 38 and playing on reconstructed knees and had the career that Joe’s had, the next generation of player gives Naz the amount of respect that he deserves and has earned. That’s a lesson.

Mike Babcock on if he’ll attempt to manage Auston Matthews’ ice time as he returns:

I’m just going to play him and see what happens. I really try not to look up the minutes in between in each period. I try to do what I think is right and at the end, what they got is what they got.

Babcock on Matthews’ skill set and what the team is getting back in the lineup:

He’s got good speed through the middle when he’s hopping on it. He can shoot the puck. He’s good defensively. He’s a committed guy. Any time you’ve missed hockey, it’s going to be hard to sustain it day-after-day, so the conditioning part is going to have to come back. He’s aware of that.

Babcock on William Nylander’s conditioning when he returns:

Willy’s a good player. He’s in good shape. He’s got good edges and can skate. I’ve got no reason to think anything, but I just believe Willy likes it here. We love him here and he’s a big part of it. We think he’ll be back. We think he’ll be up and running in a couple weeks. We’re going to play him when he gets back.

Babcock on the Sharks talented back-end:

I mean they’re good players. Vlasic and Braun are their matchup pair, though. When they want to go like they did last night at the end and push and go with four, you don’t have to go with six. Burnsy is a real elite player. We’ve played against Karlsson a ton — he’s an elite player as well. Pickles (Pickles) is one of the best defensemen in the world, so they’ve got good D.

Auston Matthews on his first game back and what’s made him hit the ground running in his first game back when he’s returned from injuries in the past:

Just keeping things simple and not getting too far ahead of myself. I haven’t played a game in over a month, so you still kind of have to find your game back and get your legs under you. Pace of play, timing — I think that just comes back over time. Especially in that first period, I’ll just try to keep things simple and not be too fancy or cute.


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards

#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#21 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #28 Connor Brown
#63 Tyler Ennis – #26 Par Lindholm – #32 Josh Leivo

Defensemen

#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #92 Igor Ozhiganov

Goaltenders

#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks

Scratched: Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Frederik Gauthier
Unsigned: William Nylander


San Jose Sharks Projected Lines

Forwards

#9 Evander Kane – # Joe Pavelski – #27 Joonas Donksoi
#48 Tomas Hertl – #39 Logan Couture – #28 Timo Meier
#20 Marcus Sorensen – #18 Joe Thornton – #62 Kevin Labanc
#23 Barclay Goodrow – #52 Lukas Radil – #68 Melker Karlsson

Defensemen

#Joakim Ryan – #88 Brent Burns
#4 Brenden Dillon – #65 Erik Karlsson
#44 Marc-Edouard Vlasic– #61 Justin Braun

Goaltenders

#30 Aaron Dell
#31 Martin Jones