Coming off a thrilling overtime win in Montreal last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in Manhattan tonight to face the 23-23-8 New York Rangers while looking to put some distance between themselves and the Habs and Bruins in the Atlantic Division (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
While the Leafs‘ usual top producers have continued to put up points during their 5-0-1 run, a few other notables have started to turn the corner in recent weeks. Andreas Johnsson has been on a tear — despite playing around 13 minutes or less a game since he was put on the bottom line in mid-January, he’s piled up 17 points in his last 25 games, including six points in his last three while playing on his off wing with Par Lindholm and Frederik Gauthier at 5v5. While all signs pointed to an eventual turnaround for William Nylander, it’s nevertheless a relief to see him start producing with seven points in seven games. Both are making pretty compelling cases to move up alongside one of Auston Matthews or John Tavares.
The Leafs power play has been difficult to watch at times lately, particularly on zone entries last night. The Habs had studied up on Toronto’s tendencies prior to last night’s game and did a great job disrupting the drop pass and limiting the short east-west passes the Leafs often run on the entry. They’re going to need to clean up their entries on the man advantage in addition to coming up with some new ideas in-zone, as it seems most teams are prepared to clog things up in the middle on the Leafs.
The danger the Leafs need to be aware of tonight is the Rangers’ top line of Kreider-Zibanejad-Zuccarello, who have been responsible for the vast majority of the team’s offensive production lately. In all situations, center Mika Zibanejad has 17 points in that same time frame, while Zuccarello and Kreider have 14 and 8, respectively.
Their 3-0 loss to Carolina on Friday was the first time the Rangers have lost by more than a goal since January 15th which, coincidentally, was their last game vs. the Hurricanes. For the most part, the Rangers have been on the right side of shots and chances as of late but haven’t been able to end up on the winning side of the scoreline all that often. Looking at the possession trend for both teams in their last ten, the Rangers have been able to climb their way back to even in the last couple of weeks:
23-year-old Alexander Georgiev will start in net for New York as they give starter Henrik Lundqvist a breather. Georgiev got off to a solid start to his career last season in ten starts (.918) but he has faltered behind a struggling Rangers team with more opportunity this season. He owned a positive Goals Saved Above Average last year at 2.05, but he’s dipped to -5.7 with a sub .900 save percentage this season. He has three wins in his last ten starts, so the Leafs should be looking to test him early and often tonight.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the power play’s struggles:
We’ve got five really good players. Jim does a really good job with the scheme. Right now, we’re pressing and we are not executing — not in the faceoff circle and not on the breakout, not in-zone. We talked about that today and I thought Jim did a good job with that and the players. If you think about our group, you’d be excited to play on it. Get out there and be excited. The good thing about it is we didn’t need it last night. We might need it tonight, so we are going to be better on it tonight and start ourselves on a roll.
Babcock on Garret Sparks’ season so far:
The big thing I look at is just wins and losses. Does he win or not? To me, that is the big thing. I thought his last outing was good. I didn’t like either of the first two goals that went in, but then he shut the door and we won the game.
I think every night is a different night when you are starting in the league as a young guy trying to find your way. It is a hard league. You keep battling. I think he’s done a good job of that. He works hard every day in practice and seems like a good teammate and is happy to do the extra work for the guys. To me, that is a big step for us.
Babcock on William Nylander working his way back to form:
Just confidence and feeling better about yourself. The first thing you’ve got to do is get yourself in shape. The second thing you’ve got to do is work hard enough and compete at an NHL level. The competition level, anyone could tell you they’re ready right after the summer, but you work your way through training camp and get ready by competing in the exhibition. You break into the season and you gradually go.
When you drop in and it’s at a different level, it’s tough for you. I think Willy has done a good job of earning his way back and earning his confidence. It is not what we think of him. It’s what he thinks of himself. That’s with everybody in every walk of life. When you’re feeling better about who you are, you’ve got a way better chance of being productive.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#12 Patrick Marleau – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#28 Connor Brown – #43 Nazem Kadri – #29 William Nylander
#26 Par Lindholm – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #18 Andreas Johnsson
#8 Jake Muzzin – #44 Morgan Rielly
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #2 Ron Hainsey
#40 Garret Sparks
#31 Frederik Andersen
Scratched: Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov, Tyler Ennis
New York Rangers Projected Lines
#20 Chris Kreider – #93 Mika Zibanejad – #36 Mats Zuccarello
#89 Pavel Buchnevich – #13 Kevin Hayes – #17 Jesper Fast
#72 Filip Chytil – #16 Ryan Strome – #90 Vladislav Namestnikov
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #24 Boo Nieves – #95 Vinni Lettieri
#18 Marc Staal – #77 Anthony DeAngelo
#76 Brady Skjei – #44 Neal Pionk
#42 Brendan Smith – #22 Kevin Shattenkirk
#40 Alexander Georgiev
#30 Henrik Lundqvist
Injured: Fredrik Claesson, Brett Howden