With suddenly only one win and just four points in their in their last five games, the Toronto Maple Leafs will look to avoid their first three-game losing slide of the season when they finish off their road trip against the struggling New Jersey Devils (7 p.m., TSN4).
After playing through a minor injury last week, Taylor Hall missed both games this weekend but will return on the top line tonight with Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmeri — a trio who’ve been together all of this season and most of last. In their almost 250 minutes together this year, they sit in the top 15 lines in the league in terms of expected goals relative to their team (minimum 100 minutes). Getting Hall back and allowing Marcus Johansson, arguably the team’s second-best winger, to reunite with his regular linemates Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt should be a huge boost to the Devils up front.
Still, the Devils were solid in their two games without the reigning MVP in their lineup, despite only two wins in their last ten games. Hall called the team, “[not] afraid to make mistakes,” while noting that they excel when they play with that mindset.
Cory Schneider is still sitting out on IR, meaning Keith Kinkaid has been getting a lot of starts as of late. Historically, Kinkaid has been a league average goalie and has performed well as a backup. Over his last three seasons, he’s seen 85 starts — managing to stay positive in goals saved against average. Additionally, 11 of his 24 starts this year have been ‘quality starts’ (starts with above league average Sv% adjusted for shots faced) — relatively impressive given the team’s poor record this year.
The Leafs have run into some really good goaltending and are experiencing some deserved regression in their goals against knowing the shots and chances they surrender. Plus, their special teams haven’t been nearly as effective as they were earlier in the year. There’s a big win coming for the Leafs sooner than later, though. While the first 40 minutes against Florida were a let-off, the team really put it together over much of the 60 minutes against Carolina and Tampa (despite the loss).
There will be no lineup changes for the Maple Leafs tonight despite the successful shakeup in the third period of the Florida game that saw Auston Matthews rejoin William Nylander and John Tavares center Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen.
It appears that Babcock, with Nylander still getting up to speed since returning and Matthews still not looking fully himself since his own return (his from injury), is not quite comfortable enough to reunite those two full time yet.
It’s hard to say when he’ll make a return to Matthews’ wing full time (Babcock may wait for another game or two and make that move when he’s got matchup control at home), but for now, Nylander will remain next to Nazem Kadri, both of whom are due for a breakout game. Johnsson and Kapanen continue to look like two of the team’s most consistent players as far as their work rate night in and night out, as mentioned out by Babcock on a couple of occasions recently, and they will stick on Matthews’ flanks tonight.
We can argue about line combinations until we’re blue in the face, but the depth on the team at the moment has given the coaching staff a plethora of options while still being able to ice three excellent forward lines. They’ve just got to start playing up to their capabilities with their full complement in place up front.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on his team’s performance:
I think we work for sure as a group, but when we don’t, it’s obvious. This league is so simple. The team that works the hardest wins most nights. When you’re blessed with skill, you might be able to cheat it a little bit, but, in the end, to get what you want in life, your work ethic has got to come first. The guy who grinds harder and longer has more fun in the end because they get to do the winning. The rest of us give up early.
That’s the difference between good and great: The ability to keep on digging in . We have to show that on a nightly basis. It’s great that we’re fun to watch. I hear that all the time. When I hear we’re machine-like to watch, I’ll be a happy guy. How’s that?
Babcock on William Nylander:
I just know when you’re used to being magic, you’re used to having pop and you’re used to being able to do things with the puck, the puck goes in for you. When you don’t, it starts wearing on you — doesn’t matter who you are. You have to take a deep breath and give yourself a break. Understand the situation you’re in and move on. We just expect him to dig in every day and work.
Babcock on the Devils’ recent games:
When I go through their last two games here, they’ve worked hard. They’ve been above the puck. They’ve made it hard on the other team. They’re not going away and not giving you anything free. I don’t think last game will have any bearing whatsoever, but I know that if we don’t do it right, we won’t have success. I think that’s a perfect team for us to be playing here today. I think a little adversity is so important in your life and it’s so important in the season.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#18 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #29 William Nylander
#63 Tyler Ennis – #26 Par Lindholm – #28 Connor Brown
#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, Frederik Gauthier
New Jersey Devils Projected Lines
#9 Taylor Hall – #13 Nico Hischier – #21 Kyle Palmeri
#90 Marcus Johansson – #37 Pavel Zacha – #63 Jesper Bratt
#20 Blake Coleman – #19 Travis Zajac – #44 Miles Wood
#11 Brian Boyle – #43 Brett Seney – #47 John Quenneville
#6 Andy Greene – #28 Damon Severson
#8 Will Butcher – #45 Sami Vatanen
#25 Mirco Mueller – #12 Ben Lovejoy
#1 Keith Kinkaid
#29 Mackenzie Blackwood
Injured: Cory Schneider, Stefan Noesen