After a 4-2 victory last night in Columbus, the Toronto Maple Leafs will look for their sixth win in a row against another streaking team in John Tavares’ former club, the New York Islanders (7 p.m, CBC).
While the most intense emotions — and curiosity about the overall fan reaction — will be saved for when Tavares returns to New York in February, there is no question this storyline will dominate the HNIC pre-game show. In a number of ways, the first three months of Tavares in Toronto has played out as well as it possibly could have for the Oakville native.
He’s off to a torrid start individually with 26 goals in 38 games, and more importantly, his new team is off to a dream start to the season (currently on a 117-point pace). Meanwhile, his former teammates on the Island — who Tavares no doubt wishes the best for when they’re not playing the Leafs — have remained competitive in their first 36 games under new leadership in head coach Barry Trotz and GM Lou Lamoriello, currently sitting just two points out of a divisional playoff spot with a game in hand.
That’s likely exactly how Tavares would’ve drawn up the last few months if he could’ve when made the toughest decision of his professional career back on July 1.
Like the Blue Jackets last night, the Islanders have won five of their last six entering the game. While four of those wins came against teams outside of the current playoff picture, the Isles have been able to control possession and pick up some well-earned victories of late.
Overall, though, the numbers on the season are what you’ve come to expect from the Islanders, who currently sit bottom ten in shot attempts for and against. They have managed to own a greater share of the shots from the slot area, however, which is in part a testament to new head coach Barry Trotz, whose track record of whipping his teams into shape in the defensive zone is pretty evident by this point. This looks like a team that is going to fall short of a playoff berth yet again when push comes to shove, but it’s difficult to write off any team of Trotz’s, and if the quality goaltending from both Robin Lehner and Thomas Griess keeps up, they’ll be able to stay right in the thick of things down the stretch.
No lineup changes are expected for the Leafs tonight, including — in a surprising bit of news — between the pipes, where Garret Sparks will start his second in as many nights. The team announced today that Frederik Andersen is day-to-day with a groin injury, resulting in the call up of Kasmir Kaskisuo from the Marlies and the acquisition of Michael Hutchinson from the Florida Panthers.
As concerning as any hint of an Andersen injury may be, this is a great opportunity for Garret Sparks, to be sure. The decision to go with Sparks over the other options in camp made for some controversy in early October and an adventurous couple of starts to begin the season did him few favours, but he’s now won six of eight games and put together one of his better performances of the season last night in Columbus. To step up with Andersen out hurt and get two wins in a back-to-back situation would be a huge confidence booster and critic silencer.
Depth in a back-to-back situation (for both teams) is always a storyline, and the Leafs continued to show really encouraging signs with their four-line balance last night in Columbus. All units contributed and the Par Lindholm – Frederik Gauthier – Trevor Moore fourth line dominated their matchup in their 7-8 minutes of ice time; they didn’t allow a scoring chance against and carried 80% of the possession. The Leafs will hope they can come out on the right side of their matchups again tonight against an Islanders’ bottom six that is relatively low on skill but high on physicality.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on whether this is a precautionary measure more than anything with Frederik Andersen:
That’s part of it, but also, during the year, everyone is always bumped and bruised. There are issues and it goes on and on with how you maintain it. You think when you come back from a break… That’s why we had it set up the way we did — practice, pre-game skate. He set up and didn’t respond the way we wanted to or hoped to. Now we are in a situation. Kaskisuo was called up this morning and we’ll go from there.
Day-to-day, but we’ll know more in the next two days. We’re set up with our schedule so we have time to figure that out. Sparky played good last night and gets another chance today, so good for him.
Babcock on Sparks’ opportunity in a back-to-back situation:
It’s a great opportunity. That’s what life is about, is earning opportunity. When you get your opportunity, you want to do good things with that opportunity. The ball is in his court. They’re a good forechecking team that goes to the net hard. There is going to be traffic here tonight, so it’s a good opportunity for him.
Babcock on whether Andersen was dealing with something going into the break:
If I say that, the next three months, we’ll be talking about… This is how it is in the league. Everyone is bumped and bruised at lots of times. There was nothing that had any red lights going off whatsoever. In saying that, when he went out to do his practice, the next day at the morning skate, he didn’t feel good. He was fine in practice. The next day in morning skate, he didn’t feel good.
Babcock on Tavares facing off against his former team for the first time:
He’s a proud guy, was there a long time. He was their captain and was drafted there. Enjoyed his time there immensely. He had a gut-wrenching decision to make and chose to come home to where he is from and live here in Toronto. The greatest thing about John is that he’s a man and he’s real comfortable with his decision and the way it has gone for him. He’d be cheering for the Islanders every night except when they’re playing us.
John Tavares on whether it is any more difficult than usual preparing for a game against his former team:
It’s certainly something I haven’t experienced before. I think when there isn’t familiarity, I don’t want to say there is uneasiness — that is probably the wrong word — but there is probably a little bit of uncertainty just because you haven’t been through it before with the way you feel and the preparation. I’ve gone through a lot of things in my career to this point and you have a good sense of what comes at you and how to handle it, but obviously, this is a new experience.
The best way is to approach it like any other game. The game means the same as all other 81 that we’ll play. If I can just go out there and just get in a rhythm and get comfortable, and just play and be in the moment and not really focus on everything else that is going on, that is the best way to approach it.
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 – #42 Trevor Moore
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #92 Igor Ozhiganov
#40 Garret Sparks
#31 Frederik Andersen
Injured: Zach Hyman (MCL), Tyler Ennis (broken ankle)
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Justin Holl
New York Islanders Projected Lines
#27 Anders Lee – #29 Brock Nelson – #26 Josh Ho-Sang
#18 Anthony Beauvillier – #13 Matt Barzal – #12 Josh Bailey
#14 Tom Kuhnhackl – #51 Valtteri Filppula – #47 Leo Komarov
#17 Matt Martin – #53 Casey Cizikas – #32 Ross Johnston
#2 Nick Leddy – #55 Johnny Boychuk
#3 Adam Pelech – #6 Ryan Pulock
#25 Devon Toews – #24 Scott Mayfield
#1 Thomas Greiss
#40 Robin Lehner