As Connor McDavid returns from suspension to face his hometown team for the first time this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be aiming for a better start tonight against Edmonton as they look to keep pace with the red-hot Boston Bruins in the battle for home-ice advantage in the playoffs (7 p.m EST, SN Ontario).

Toronto’s poor starts have become a narrative again; they haven’t scored in a first period since February 14th against Vegas and have given up the first goal in five consecutive games. Babcock seemed relatively unconcerned when asked about the team’s starts, save Monday’s game against the Sabres:

No, we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t generate any offence in the first period [against Buffalo]. Actually, in previous games, we had generated quite a bit but hadn’t scored. [Against Buffalo], we didn’t do anything in the first period. Obviously, our starts are important but we didn’t address that today at all, we just got the motor running and got ready for [Edmonton].

Despite the lack of first-period scoring, the Leafs are still 6-3-1 in their last ten. Unfortunately, the Bruins are rolling at 8-0-2, even without one of their top forwards in David Pastrnak. A Toronto-Boston first-round series is virtually a guarantee at this point, and the Leafs currently have a 44.2% chance at grabbing home-ice advantage versus the Bruins’ 53.4% chance, per moneypuck.com.

To that end, the Leafs may have sustained a bit of a blow today with the news that Jake Gardiner’s recurring back problems will keep him out again tonight. He’s missed two games this year so far, but it looks like the team might shut him down for a period of time in hopes he’s healthy for the playoffs. As a result, here are the team’s pairings likely for the next little while:

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

Up front, the Leafs‘ bottom line was instantly more productive with Trevor Moore slotted in on the left wing against Buffalo. Gauthier had his most impressive game of the year and the line looked like a credible threat for the first time in a while. Newcomer Nic Petan is now practicing with the team and is an option to fill in, but it’s very unlikely he’ll be in the lineup anytime soon — Petan hasn’t played in two months and the Leafs will look to get him up to speed and working with their development staff for a while first.

Edmonton’s struggles this season need no introduction. Once again in flux, the team doesn’t have a clear plan and another year of McDavid’s prime is going to waste. They’re a poor possession team, and while they’re underperforming their expected goals a bit, they’re a bottom ten team in that metric as well. They’re 21st in shot attempt differential and 24th in expected goal differential.

Nazem Kadri has typically relished the McDavid matchup in years past, but he’s not available again tonight and it’ll fall largely on John Tavares’ line to keep the Oilers’ talisman contained. That said, there will be a by-committee effort needed knowing that Ken Hitchcock throws McDavid over the boards every other shift to the tune of 25+ minutes on the regular.

Auston Matthews will see a good amount of Leon Draisaitl, which is a good head-to-head matchup between two high-end centers also, although Draisaitl is currently flanked by Tobias Reider and Alex Chaisson — a good demonstration of the dearth of quality wingers in Edmonton surrounding their two-headed monster down the middle. The Oilers have been forced to move Ryan Nugent-Hopkins onto McDavid’s wing to supply him with some support and have also recently brought in former Marlie Sam Gagner for the right wing, meaning if the Leafs can limit RNH-McDavid and Draisaitl, there isn’t a whole lot there to worry about otherwise; the Leafs’ depth is far superior.

In net, Frederik Andersen will start tonight, with Garret Sparks going tomorrow night against the Islanders.


Game Day Quotes

Mike Babcock on the Oilers:

Well, obviously Draisaitl, McDavid, and Nugent-Hopkins are high-end players. I think Draisaitl’s really feeling it right now; just the way he’s playing. I think that line’s real good. Obviously, McDavid has only played two of their last five. He’s got elite speed and hands and skillset. We understand that. I thought Eichel skated by us last game with his speed through the middle and we weren’t as good as we should have been in that area, so obviously that’ll be a focal point for us here tonight. It’s always fun when real good players come to town. When Sid comes to town and guys like [McDavid], it’s good for your team and it’s good for your fans.

Babcock on the power play’s increased confidence lately:

I think anytime it doesn’t go for a period of time, you’re a human being and you start squeezing it a little bit. The slower you go and the more you think, usually the less that happens. It’s like any walk of life, when you’re overthinking things nothing good really happens. When you’re confident and loose and driving, things go better for you. Obviously, our group feels good in that area. It has to be an area of strength for us. We actually think our penalty kill has to be an area of strength, too, so we need to get back on that. You just need good specialty teams in order to have success.

Babcock on Connor Brown:

I think Brown Cow’s a really good player. When I first [started] with this team he played for the Marlies, he was a good player. He’s got real high-end hockey IQ — defensively, offensively — and he’s a worker bee. He can play with anybody/ He’s important on our penalty kill. We think he’s a real good penalty killer. He’s an important 5-on-5 player, he can play anywhere, and he’s an important guy for us. He’s a Toronto kid and he loves being a Leaf and we love having him.

Ken Hitchcock on the Leafs:

They’ve got depth offensively, which is a challenge for us. They’re a 50-50 game where they anticipate and break free on you — it’s something we have to avoid. If we manage the game properly in the offensive zone, we play well. We’ve got to really get on the grind and stay on it. We can’t be careless with the puck in the offensive zone because they just need one chance and they’ve got one or two players out in the neutral zone — that’s where they seem to do all their damage.


Matchup Stats


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards 

#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Patrick Marleau – #29 William Nylander – #28 Connor Brown
#42 Trevor Moore – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #63 Tyler Ennis

Defensemen

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

Goaltenders

#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks

Injured: Nazem Kadri (concussion), Jake Gardiner (back)
Scratched: 
Justin Holl, Nic Petan


Edmonton Oilers Projected Lines

Forwards

#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – #97 Connor McDavid – #89 Sam Gagner
#22 Tobias Reider – #87 Leon Draisaitl – #39 Alex Chiasson
#27 Milan Lucic – #12 Colby Cave – #43 Josh Currie
#24 Brad Malone – #28 Kyle Brodziak – #44 Zach Kassian

Defensemen

#77 Oscar Klefbom – #6 Adam Larsson
#25 Darnell Nurse – #4 Kris Russell
#2 Andrej Sekera – #83 Matt Benning

Goaltenders

#19 Mikko Koskinen
#32 Anthony Stolarz

Injured: Jesse Puljujarvi, Jujhar Khaira