Tonight at Amalie Arena, it’s the number one-ranked team in the league (the Tampa Bay Lightning) versus the number-two ranked team in the league (your Toronto Maple Leafs) — a battle of the titans in the Atlantic Division and perhaps a foreshadowing of a future playoff matchup this Spring (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet Ontario).

Tampa Bay enters the game scorching hot — 9-1-0 in their last 10 games and currently on a seven-game winning streak. The Leafs have been a little bit cooler of late at 6-3-1 in their last 10, but both of these clubs score more than any of the other in the league — Tampa leads the league with 130 goals for, while the Leafs are second (granted, a distant second) with 113.

At the other end, the Lightning haven’t been able to keep the puck out of the net as effectively as an elite team would like to, as they’ve been starting their backup goalie, Louis Domingue, over this past stretch during Andrei Vasilevskiy’s injury. Domingue’s done a good job of holding down the fort, but Tampa’s goals against total sits 11th in the league; Toronto has allowed 85, which ranks them 7th.

The Lightning currently sit top 10 in both shot attempts for and against, as well as expected goals for and against. They’re below league average in goals allowed per 60 minutes, but outperform those numbers consistently, suggesting they’ve been unlucky with their results defensively. Vasilevskiy will help them get back to where they should be considering their talent level and the rate at which they’re limiting shots/ chances, adding the final piece to the puzzle for the league’s President’s Trophy frontrunner.

After missing 14 games in a row, Vasilevskiy’s return is a big upgrade for Tampa, but they have a cold — albeit elite — goalie coming back in after a long layoff. The general plan of attack is usually to get pucks on net against untested goalies, but the opposite may be true here.

If you’re the Leafs and you’re able to, making sure your first shots on goal are actual scoring chances (granted, easier said than done) may be the preferred approach as opposed to simply throwing pucks on net early. The idea being: Put yourself in a position to score on the first shot and avoid warming up a cold-but-high-end goalie with low-percentage plays from the outside. An early goal on a netminder that has been out of the lineup for as long as Vasilevskiy has only serves to erode confidence, no matter who you are.

The left side of the map for Tampa’s shot locations against shows some weakness on the right point — perhaps due to the comparatively weak left wingers on each line who are not able to cover the point as effectively as the right — while their shots for location chart is, in a word, scary. Their left side of their defense (Hedman, McDonagh) get their shots through with regularity and seem to be able to work it to the middle well. The Leafs forwards will need to make sure they’re cutting off the tops effectively.

As for the matchups tonight, it’s tough to predict how they’ll shake out exactly, as both teams have spread their great offensive wealth throughout their top nine pretty evenly and will look to come at each other in four-line waves. It might be a case of both teams getting their best players on the ice as much as possible without worrying too much about the other team’s bench. Jon Cooper will have last change and the main tendency is matching Hedman-Whoever against top lines — he also often likes Brayden Point up against the other team’s best center, freeing up Steven Stamkos some — but the Leafs have three lines deserving of considerable worry and he’ll likely roll his lines pretty freely, something he has the luxury of being able to do given the depth of his team.

In a general sense, it’ll be Matthews-Tavares-Kadri vs. Stamkos-Point-Cirelli down the middle, with the elite likes of Marner and Kucherov able to drive their lines off the wing, and that should make for some fantastic battles in what should be a very high-paced, high-skilled game of hockey tonight.


Game Day Quotes

Mike Babcock on the value of tough matchups such as this one:

I think it’s fun. I don’t think I’m going head to head with John [Cooper], but our team is playing their team. It’s a way to have an evaluation of your own club, so you’re going to find out a lot here tonight. You watch them play and try to get the right people on the ice and see what happens. They’re setting the standard, obviously, in the league right now  — we’d like to [as well] — so let’s see what happens

You can watch them on video all you want but then you see how big and fast they are when they’re standing right next to you. I say that all the time, the people who are 200ft away have no idea what’s really going on out there. The speed and the pace, when you’re standing on the bench, you’re going to find out.

Babcock on Matthews:

Right now, I think Matthews has started to get his legs back. I thought Willy has, too. I thought that line was really good the last four periods.

When there’s open space and all that, and you don’t have to battle, you have energy. As soon as you’ve got to compete and as soon as you have a tough shift in the Dzone — which we’re going to have some tonight — that’s when your legs go.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper on the 1st vs. 2nd-place matchup:

This one has been circled on the calendar. It’s probably coming at a really good time. Both teams are sitting in a pretty good spot in the standings. It is one of 82, but it should be a good one.

Cooper on the difference between last season’s Lightning team and this year’s:

I would say last year’s team had a little bit more run and gun in it. It was about who was going to get the last shot of the game was going to win, type deal. Chances both ways. I’m not saying that we don’t give up chances, but not at the rate we did last year in a year where I think scoring chances are up and offense is up compared to last year.  Regardless, last year’s team had a good start and this year’s team is having a good start. It’s just our consistency now from here on out.


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards

#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#28 Connor Brown – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#18 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #29 William Nylander
#26 Par Lindholm – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #63 Tyler Ennis

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
Suspended: Zach Hyman


Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines

Forwards

#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #37 Yanni Gourde
#9 Tyler Johnson – #21 Brayden Point – #89 Nikita Kucherov
#17 Alex Killorn – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #19 J.T Miller
#7 Mathieu Joseph – #13 Cedric Paquette – #24 Ryan Callahan

Defensemen

#77 Victor Hedman – #5 Dan Girardi
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #81 Erik Cernak
#55 Braydon Coburn – #98 Mikhail Sergachev

Goaltenders

#88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#70 Louis Domingue

Injured: Anton Stralman