After two straight convincing victories, the Toronto Maple Leafs will try to make it three in a row when they host the New York Rangers on Hockey Night in Canada.
The Leafs were fast and aggressive in the opening period against the Panthers, giving up some quality chances against but ultimately dictating play in four-line waves — they fired 29 shot attempts and generated 16 scoring chances in the first 20 minutes. The Leafs would love to get off to a similar start at home again tonight and take advantage of a Rangers team that is 4-9-1 on the road, will be without Henrik Lundqvist, and has given up almost four goals a game in their last five.
With Kevin Shattenkirk out since the beginning of December and Ryan McDonagh traded to Tampa last deadline, the Rangers’ defense is a work in progress right now. At the moment, their primary matchup pair consists of Marc Staal and Neal Pionk. Pionk, the 23-year-old undrafted college signee, has been one of the brightest stories in New York this year, averaging 23 minutes of time-on-ice and sitting fifth on the team in points (4g,13a). His usage on the top pair has allowed the likes of Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, and Anthony DeAngelo some breathing space. Nevertheless, their backend is one that can very much be taken advantage of by deep offenses like the Leafs‘, who should be able to exploit some mismatches tonight.
The team announced earlier this week that Zach Hyman will miss at least three weeks with a sprained MCL, with Mike Babcock moving Connor Brown up to Kadri’s line on his off wing. Judging by the morning skate, Babcock has decided to split up Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson to spread the wealth a bit more among the top nine, with Johnsson joining Tavares and Marner in Hyman’s spot, Brown opposite Nylander, and Kapanen on Auston Matthews’ wing.
An interesting nugget from this morning:
after auston matthews scored on his off-wing in thursday’s win, he and mitch marner have swapped sides on the power play here at #leafs morning skate
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) December 22, 2018
The Leafs obviously like their scheme of having their wingers on their strong sides to easily puck protect and open up options; as a righty, Mitch Marner can shift the puck down low to the lefty John Tavares much easier, dish into the middle bumper, or find the seam to Matthews, whose ability to catch and release across his body is unrivaled in the sport. However, Florida game aside, PK units have adjusted in the past month or so and are sagging off of Marner and taking away the middle and backpost options more effectively.
The Leafs have occasionally — particularly with the Matthews and Nylander unit last season — switched it up mid-game to give the opposition PKs a different look with their wingers on the one-time sides, and it appears to be another option they’re working on now with the current top unit. Just when we thought we had seen Matthews score every kind of goal he could possibly conjure up, he rips a knee-down one-timer on his off-wing against Florida and gives the coaching staff a new idea to play with.
Game Day Quotes
Nazem Kadri on the breakout season of long-time teammate Morgan Rielly:
His maturation process I’ve been able to see first hand. It’s been quite the journey for him. Each and every year he adds a little bit to the arsenal to make him the elite defenseman that he is. His skating ability is what really sticks out for me. He’s able to hop in the play so easily, so effortlessly. That release with his wrist shot it also pretty impeccable, so everything ties in.
Mike Babcock on making sure the team doesn’t get ahead of itself:
[We don’t want to be] turning the puck over too much, feeding the transition, being too cute. We really believe if we can get rolling around in the offensive zone, we have enough weapons and enough skill that we’re going to hurt you. Everybody is way better when you spend no time in your own zone.
Babcock on John Tavares:
He figured out in his career that all the goals are scored within a stick length of the net, so he goes there. If you track the guys that don’t score, they’re never near the net. It doesn’t matter how much you tell them. You don’t beat the goalies from distance in the NHL. You just don’t. Once in a while, you get a screen and the guy blows it by. If you’re Matthews, you can blow the odd one by, but most of us have to be within a stick length, and probably half a stick length.
Babcock on Martin Marincin getting back into the lineup with Igor Ozhiganov out sick:
I thought he played good [last game vs. Florida]. He’s a good skater. He’s got a good stick. He’s a smart guy. He’s just got to find a way to get in every day. Holl is a good d-man too. He can play for you everyday. We just haven’t got him in.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#12 Patrick Marleau – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#28 Connor Brown – #43 Nazem Kadri – #29 William Nylander
#26 Par Lindholm – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #63 Tyler Ennis
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #52 Martin Marincin
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Injured: Igor Ozhiganov (illness)
Scratched: Justin Holl
New York Rangers Projected Lines
#72 Filip Chytil – #93 Mika Zibanejad – #36 Mats Zuccarello
#20 Chris Kreider – #13 Kevin Hayes – #93 Pavel Buchnevich
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #21 Brett Howden – #90 Vladislav Namestnikov
#24 Boo Nieves – #50 Lias Andersson – #16 Ryan Strome
#18 Marc Staal – #44 Neal Pionk
#42 Brendan Smith – #77 Anthony DeAngelo
#76 Brady Skjei – #54 Adam McQuaid
#40 Alexander Georgiev
#30 Henrik Lundqvist
Injured: Cody McLeod, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jesper Fast