Following their first three-game losing slide of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs will try to put some more distance between themselves and the Montreal Canadiens tonight as the oldest rival in hockey continues to heat up during the 2018-19 season series (7 p.m, CBC).

The vast majority of Leaf fans would likely prefer a first-round series against Montreal over one against Boston, but their recent record has shifted attention towards getting home-ice advantage back from the Bruins, who now sit four points ahead with one fewer game remaining in their schedule.

Both the Leafs and Habs haven’t helped themselves much with their form lately — Toronto has now lost three in a row and Montreal lost four in a row before winning their last two — all while Boston was busy rattling off seven consecutive victories. Both teams know this is a big one, so expect a fast and emotionally-charged battle tonight.

We know the Habs have been an elite possession team this year. They have the forward depth to do so, and a coach whose teams play close-support, puck-possession hockey and keep it tight through the neutral zone. They’ve arguably out-played the Leafs at even strength in both games in the season series so far, so the Leafs are going to need to find an answer for the lack of space in the neutral zone and be willing to put pucks in behind the Habs defense and go to work.

An interesting trend with how the Canadiens have generated offense this year is the difference between their shot attempt rates and their expected goal rates. Generally, the relationship between those two metrics is relatively linear, but in Montreal’s case, they clearly generate more shot attempts for than expected goals for relative to the rest of the league. It makes sense for a team that throws a lot at the net but doesn’t have out-of-this-world shooting talent. Nevertheless, compared to other top possession teams (Carolina, San Jose, Vegas), they aren’t shooting from the dangerous areas as much. That said, they get pucks at the net and drive the hard areas of the ice with consistency, so the Leafs will need to be competitive enough in that area of the ice.

Last time around, just two Saturdays ago in Montreal, both teams essentially went down the line in terms of matchups; Tavares’ line against Danault’s line, Matthews’ line against Domi’s line, etc. With the Leafs having last change, things could change up a bit tonight — especially if Nylander is on his game like he has been lately — though the lineup balance of both teams is similar and that leads to the kind of game where both coaches might look to roll them over the boards for the most part as opposed to being too matchup focused.


Game Day Quotes

Mike Babcock on the Habs and the game plan tonight:

I think they play fast. I think they’re playing well. They had a bit of a dip; they seem to be right back at her. The bottom line is — if you can control the neutral zone and get going the other way, keep them off your D — you’re going to be way better off. So the team that establishes that first and maintains it is going to have more of an opportunity to generate offence for sure.

I don’t think they’re doing anything that suprises us in the least bit. They know what you’re doing, you know what they’re doing, and now you’ve got to go out there harder and longer and smarter than they do.

Babcock on Nylander’s first full game at center:

I think he can really transport the puck and really cycle [well]. We just need details defensively. That’s the problem with being a D or a center — [wingers] don’t have to do it, but when it’s going in your net and you’re below the goal line, that’s always a problem for a D or a center. That’s just the process of playing centre when you haven’t played there in a while. You’ve got to be real good defensively. It’s a 200-foot game. You need more of an engine; you just have to. All the good centers have that.

Babcock on Kasperi Kapanen:

Well, I think if you want to look at a model of how to handle prospects the absolute best, he’s the guy. You keep them [in the AHL] too long. It might frustrate the crap out of them, but you just keep putting them there until he’s ready to be a real hockey player, then you put him in and he’s a real hockey player. He’s confident, he’s got swagger, he’s strong, he’s fast, he shoots it, he penalty kills. he plays on the power play when we need him. He’s a useful player and he’s a good guy.


Matchup Stats


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards 

#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

Defensemen

#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#8 Jake Muzzin – #23 Travis Dermott

Goaltenders

#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks

Injured: Nazem Kadri (concussion)
Scratched: 
Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov


Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines

Forwards

#92 Jonathan Drouin – #24 Philip Danault – #11 Brendan Gallagher
#90 Tomas Tatar – #13 Max Domi – #65 Andrew Shaw
#54 Charles Hudon – #15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #40 Joel Armia
#62 Artturi Lehkonen – #21 Nate Thompson – #63 Matthew Peca

Defensemen

#53 Victor Mete – #6 Shea Weber
#28 Mike Reilly – #26 Jeff Petry
#17 Brett Kulak  – #8 Jordie Benn

Goaltenders

#31 Carey Price
#37 Antti Niemi

Injured: none