Returning home for the first time in eight days, the Toronto Maple Leafs now find themselves four points back of the Boston Bruins — with two games in hand — as they take on the 33-20-7 Washington Capitals (7 p.m EST, TSN4).
The Capitals have been having a bit of an odd season. They’re one of the league’s most overperforming teams this year, but those relatively poor underlying numbers have started to catch up to them over the last couple of months.
They rank 26th in expected goals and 19th in shot attempt differential in 2018-19, but they were able to push past those numbers for the first half of the season or so and maintain one of the league’s better records. They certainly have the shooting talent to do so for stretches, but even still, they’ve regressed heavily since. Pre-December 31st, they ranked first in shooting percentage and sixth in save percentage, which put them at a league-leading PDO of 1.036. In their 22 games since then, their Sh% ranks 6th and their Sv% 25th — for a PDO that now sits at 18th (.995). Their record in those two time periods: 24-10-3 pre-December 31st, 9-9-4 since.
More recently, Washington has struggled even further to control possession. They haven’t had a CF% of 45% or better in any of their last five games. Even so, they’ve gone 3-2 over that stretch. Here’s the 10-game Corsi trend for both teams:
Looking at the matchup chart down below, just about the only area the Leafs don’t stack up as superior according to the underlying metrics is in shooting percentage at 5v5 (marginally) and on the power play.
For the Leafs, Nazem Kadri’s concussion diagnosis forces William Nylander to center for the time being. While he has limited NHL reps there, he played center all the way growing up, in the SHL, in the AHL, and at the World Championships for Sweden, where he won tournament MVP. He lugs the puck through three zones really well, can attack both wings from the middle of the ice (opening more shooting angles), and arguably can better put to use his elite vision and transition play from the center position. If Tavares didn’t sign in Toronto, you wonder if we would’ve seen Nylander line up down the middle quite a bit this year.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on William Nylander’s recent performance:
I think it’s a tough question just because he wasn’t here for the [whole] year, so that makes it harder for him no question. Willy’s a real strong guy. He’s got real good edges. I don’t think you saw any of that early and you’re starting to see it now. He has the puck more. He was an elite cycle guy for us, but the edges and the strength and the battles are just coming back now. The other thing is he’s got an absolute bomb of a shot so he’s got to feel that too.
Babcock on changing up his D-pairs:
That’ll continue to happen until we sort it out. To me, it’s just about getting the players on the ice. I thought [Gardiner] and [Zaitsev] were really good last game; probably as good as Gards has been in a while. I thought Z was fantastic if you go through the whole trip. So if you go through it, that was probably our best set last game, so that’s why things change.
Babcock on the value of players like Zach Hyman and Tom Wilson:
Pavel [Datsyuk] used to tell me he didn’t want two other guys on [his] line that wanted the puck. He just wanted someone to get him the puck. He wanted the puck all the time. That’s what those guys do — they get it for you, they go to the net.
[Hyman] is an elite, elite, elite forechecker, an elite skater, and it leads to possession. Whether you lose the faceoff or win the faceoff, you end up having the puck. I think he’s a different sort. He is physical. He’s physical on offence and gets the puck back all the time. I don’t think there’s one guy in the league that gets the puck back more than him. Now does he scare you like Tom Wilson? I don’t think so, but he comes to get you and gets the puck.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#12 Patrick Marleau – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #29 William Nylander – #28 Connor Brown
#26 Par Lindholm – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #63 Tyler Ennis
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#8 Jake Muzzin – #23 Travis Dermott
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Injured: Nazem Kadri (concussion)
Scratched: Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov
Washington Capitals Projected Lines
#8 Alex Ovechkin – #92 Evgeny Kuznetsov – #43 Tom Wilson
#13 Jakub Vrana – #19 Nicklas Backstrom – #77 T.J Oshie
#65 Andre Burakovsky – #20 Lars Eller – #10 Brett Connolly
#18 Chandler Stephenson – #26 Nic Dowd – #72 Travis Boyd
#6 Michal Kempny – #74 John Carlson
#9 Dimitri Orlov – #2 Matt Niskanen
#44 Brooks Orpik – #29 Christian Djoos
#70 Braden Holtby
#1 Pheonix Copley
Scratched: Carl Hagelin (acquired from L.A this morning)