In the midst of their toughest stretch of the season after losing five-of-eight since Christmas, the Toronto Maple Leafs are up against undoubtedly the league’s best team while looking for a rebound game on the road against a division rival (7:30 p.m, SN Ontario).
According to MoneyPuck, through 47 games, the Lightning are already at 99.9% probability of making the playoffs. With 73 points, they’ve already collected more than the final points total of six NHL teams in 2017-18.
If we drop the lockout-shortened season by the Blackhawks in 2012-13, you have to go back to the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and 1970s Montreal Canadiens teams to find a points percentage in the neighbourhood of the Lightning’s current .787. Take into account it’s now a hard-cap era of parity and it’s even more stunning.
The Lightning are at or near the top in most major metrics and, while they took at a save percentage dip through December, it’s hard to find an area where they haven’t excelled this season. They’re one of the only teams that is in the top ten in both shot attempts for and against. They haven’t ridden their percentages all that much, either — their expected goals for and against are closely in line with their actual goals for and against. For the most part, they’ve earned everything they’ve gotten.
The Leafs seemed up for the challenge last time they visited Tampa Bay — maybe their most impressive game of the season at 5v5 spoiled by a Herculean goaltending performance by Andrei Vasilevskiy. After the loss, the Leafs rattled off five wins in their next six games. Since then, the Lightning have kept on winning while the Leafs have fallen on hard times in their last 10, at least relative to the lofty expectations in the Toronto market (5-5-0).
The Leafs will shuffle their lines around tonight looking to spark an offense that should be converting far more often than it is during the recent stretch of mediocre play. They’ll reunite the Hyman-Matthews-Nylander line who spent 640 5v5 minutes together last year (first on the team) and dominated, while shifting Andreas Johnsson to the Tavares-Marner line, where he’s been effective in a small sample this season. Kadri will skate in between Marleau and Kapanen — a trio that is famished offensively right now across the board.
The Leafs have lost 11 of 24 on home ice including five of the last six, with the last game bringing out some boo birds at the Scotiabank Arena. Getting out on the road for this Sunshine State back-to-back may just be what the doctor ordered. A win tonight would go a long way toward shutting the door on the creeping doubts of late about the team’s viability as a true contender.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the thought behind changing up the lines, and how he sees the team moving forward:
It hasn’t gone as good as we’d want. I think moving the wingers around is more about let’s just get to work and play fast and let’s play hard. If you don’t to that against this team, it’s going to be ugly anyway — so we’ve got to play well. I thought we played well last time we played them, but we’ve to work and play fast and do things right. Anytime anything gets stale, you’ve got to change it around a little bit. We’ve done that a lot here as of late.
I think adversity is a wonderful thing. I think you’ve always got to be careful wanting it, and then when you get it, you don’t want to have it. But when you don’t have it, you say ‘we probably need some adversity’. That’s all great to say, but today’s a new day. Let’s play.
Babcock on the team’s last meeting with Tampa:
I just thought we played quick. They’re going to be quick here tonight. It’s two good teams. It’s about execution, but if you can establish your game first and you can on top of the other team, they have less room. If they get on top of you, you have less room. It just kind of snowballs on you.
Babcock on Andreas Johnsson’s recent play:
Well, I think Johnny works. The greatest thing, no matter how much skill you have, if you put your work before your skill, you have a chance to be happy most nights. The players that elevate themselves to be really, really good players are all workers. They just flat out work. They work away from the rink, they work at the rink. I think [Johnsson]’s doing a good job for us.
Lightning head coach John Cooper on the Leafs:
Toronto’s got a good team and we’ve got a good team, so it’s two good teams playing hockey. We probably weren’t as prepared for them as they were for us, and it was eye-opening to see how good the Leafs really were. If it wasn’t for a herculean effort by our goaltender, that game may have been different.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#12 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #29 William Nylander
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#18 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#26 Par Lindholm – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #12 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
Injured: Tyler Ennis (broken ankle)
Scratched: Justin Holl, Martin Marincin
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #37 Yanni Gourde
#9 Tyler Johnson – #21 Brayden Point – #89 Nikita Kucherov
#17 Alex Killorn – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #73 Adam Erne
#19 J.T Miller – #13 Cedric Paquette – #24 Ryan Callahan
#77 Victor Hedman – #5 Dan Girardi
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #81 Erik Cernak
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #6 Anton Stralman
#88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#70 Louis Domingue