The Toronto Maple Leafs will face a good test tonight when they take on a battle-tested and defensively-stout opponent in the Nashville Predators (7 p.m EST, Sportsnet Ontario).

While Saturday night’s matchup wasn’t a nothing game, it was much easier for the Leafs to find time and space with the puck than it is on most nights, as the Canucks lack enough quality depth, are one of the worst possession teams in the league, and were playing their sixth game in ten days without their top center. Nevertheless, it was encouraging that the Leafs didn’t play down to their opponent and dominated the game on the cycle as well as off the rush while recovering well in their own zone and breaking out cleanly.

Tonight’s game against Nashville presents a steeper challenge and will kick off a stretch of schedule that should be productive as far as evaluating the state of the team’s play entering the second half of the season. The Leafs will play the Predators tonight and will also take on Boston, Colorado, Tampa Bay, and Washington before January is through. Having lost their last two games against current divisional playoff seeds (Tampa and Boston), five of their next eight games will come against opposition we can consider playoff locks.

This will likely be the most difficult start as a Leaf for Michael Hutchinson, who earned his first shutout with the team on Saturday against the Canucks. Frederik Andersen is practicing, but it’s been pointed out that this is his first groin injury and he’ll want to take his time with an ailment that can linger and nag goaltenders. That’s the common-sense approach in early January for a team with designs on a deep playoff run.

While the Predators are an experienced team with a number of long postseason runs to their name and bring the elements of heaviness, structure through the neutral zone, and an elite blue line that is always a good test, they have been underperforming relative to their usual standard of late. Some of it is due to injuries — the Preds have been without Kyle Turris (lower body) and Filip Forsberg (hand) since the beginning of December, both big pieces of a Cup-contending roster that is scoring at a middle-of-the-pack rate (13th in the NHL in GF/g) so far this season. Forsberg did practice with the team in Toronto and is a game-time decision for tonight.

Entering their third game of a six-game road trip, the Predators are 3-5-2 in their last 10. They lost the first game of the trip in overtime against the Red Wings and won the second 4-1 against the Habs on Saturday night. They controlled just 40% of shot attempts and 36% of scoring chances against Detroit and 45% and 44% against Montreal, respectively. The Preds are an elite defensive team, of that there is no doubt — on the season, they sit third in expected goals against and second in shot attempts against — but offensively, they’re bottom ten in shots from the slot area and are average in most major offensive categories halfway through the year. They’re also worse than average — 28th in the NHL — on the power play.

Especially if Forsberg is out of the Nashville lineup, the Leafs are a more dangerous team offensively at the moment provided they can rise to the challenge as far as the need to manage the puck through the neutral zone, get pucks in behind the defense, generate offense off the cycle, and be heavy on the puck against an experienced Predators team.


Game Day Quotes

Mike Babcock on limiting shots against:

When you look since Christmas, we took a little break and I didn’t think we were quite as good; not as dialled in. I thought last game we were dialled in. We don’t worry about shots, to tell you the truth. we worry about scoring chances — that’s our focus here. To keep our scoring chances down, we have to spend time in the offensive zone. If you spend too much time in your own zone, you’re flat out giving up chances or you’re giving up power plays. That’s the key for us: We have to continue to play in the offensive zone and play hard.

Babcock on the team’s depth and matchups without Tyler Ennis and Zach Hyman:

I actually think when we get our lineup back, we’ll be able to change our lines quite a bit due to matchups just because we have more people to do that with now. In saying that, I think every time we’ve lost a player we’ve found another one, which has been real good for us. It means we’ve got good depth throughout the organization. Obviously, when Hyman comes back, he’s going in right away as he’s part of our team.

Babcock on the fourth line:

Someone asked me that the other day and I said, ‘Well we’ve got four lines that can score’. I really believe that, over time, we’re going to have that. It’s really important. You want to have good depth. You’d like to have a fourth line that can start in the d-zone all the time and take some wear and tear of your other guys so that your big boys can start in the o-zone. The numbers just show it’s easier and better for you. That’s a work in progress. [Gauthier] we think has come a long way, [Lindholm] we think has come a long way. Those guys are critical for that because we need PK guys there and we need faceoff guys there in order to have success.


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards

#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #29 William Nylander
#28 Connor Brown – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#26 Par Lindholm – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #42 Trevor Moore

Defensemen

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

Goaltenders

#30 Michael Hutchinson
#50 Kasimir Kaskisuo

Injured: Zach Hyman (MCL), Tyler Ennis (broken ankle), Frederik Andersen (groin), Garret Sparks (concussion)
Scratched: 
Martin Marincin, Justin Holl


Nashville Predators Projected Lines

Forwards

#19 Calle Jarnkrok – #92 Ryan Johansen – #33 Victor Arvidsson
#22 Kevin Fiala – #10 Colton Sissons – #15 Craig Smith
#38 Ryan Hartman – #13 Nick Bonino – #51 Austin Watson
#36 Zach Rinaldo – #89 Frederik Gaudreau – #23 Rocco Grimaldi

Defensemen

#58 Roman Josi – #4 Ryan Ellis
#5 Dan Hamhuis – #14 Matthias Ekholm
#52 Matt Irwin – #76 P.K Subban

Goaltenders

#35 Pekka Rinne
#74 Juuse Saros

Injured: Filip Forsberg (game-time decision), Kyle Turris, Yannick Weber, Mikka Salomaki