Suddenly down three crucial players — two on left defense — the Toronto Maple Leafs depth on the back end will be truly tested for the first time this year as they take on the Metro Division-leading Islanders in John Tavares’ long-awaited return to New York (7 p.m, TSN4).

It’s bound to be an emotional night for John Tavares, and his return and the crowd reception will naturally be the focus of the game (the buildup has been ridiculous, and there is going to be a tribute during the game). Toronto would love to be rested and at full strength for this, but Jake Gardiner’s shut down for a lingering back issue and Travis Dermott’s shoulder injury suffered last night will keep them both out for the near future, and the Leafs played yesterday while Islanders didn’t.

Calle Rosen — the Marlies‘ scoring leader among defensemen with 44 points in 57 games — would have likely gotten a well-earned call-up for this one, but he’s also injured — so too is Andreas Borgman. The good news is that Rosen’s injury isn’t believed to be serious and we may well see him sooner rather than later. In the meantime, Martin Marincin received the emergency recall and will be paired with Justin Holl tonight, while Igor Ozhiganov will sit for the back-to-back after not playing in over a month until last night’s game.

So much focus will be on the marquee matchup between Mathew Barzal and Tavares — the former captain versus new face of the franchise — but for the second game in a row, the Leafs‘ new look fourth line was really feeling it last night. With the game out of reach after the Leafs scored four unanswered in the second, Babcock gave them some extra shifts and they took advantage. The Oilers depth players lived up to their reputation (awful), and they didn’t have much pushback against a deep Leafs lineup (even without Nazem Kadri) that has speed and skill throughout. The Islanders are certainly a deeper team than the Oilers in their bottom two lines — Leo Komarov, Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Valtteri Filppula — but all of those players are in the bottom five among regular forwards in relative shot attempts and the Leafs might be able to take advantage despite their tired legs.

The Islanders are a low-event team that, to generalize, has been below average offensively and good defensively this season — they sit 28th in shot attempts for and 11th in shot attempts against. They do a better job in the critical ice — they’re 10th in slot shots for and 12th in slot shots against.

Arguably, the biggest single factor in their suprise season, along with a mandatory nod to the coaching of Barry Trotz (he wins wherever he goes), has been goaltending. The Islanders’ on-ice Sv% at 5-on-5 and all situations is tops in the NHL. The duo of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss are having career seasons, to say the least. They’ve started close to the same numbers of games, 35 for Lehner and 31 for Greiss, and both have similarly impressive numbers. Among goalies with at least 200 minutes this year, they rank second and fourth in goals saved against expected goals against, respectively. Frederik Andersen is third in the category, but it’s Garret Sparks who will go tonight in a back-to-back situation.

The big question for tonight: Can the Leafs dig deep for JT despite the adverse circumstances? It’s not the end of the world either way with the much more important battles on the horizon in a month and a half’s time, but this is a character-testing game by regular season standards and hopefully the Leafs show better for their teammate than they did when the Islanders came to Toronto earlier this year.

Game Day Quotes

John Tavares on what he is expecting tonight and what his preparation has been like for this night:

I don’t expect it to be a very welcoming return. I am just going to go out there and try to play the best I can and just worry about what I can control.

The game is played between the boards, so I am just going to put my skates on and go out there like I have my whole life.

You can only control what you can control and I just tried to be open and honest about my decision. At the end of the day, it is what it is. I just got out there, play hockey, and try to help the Toronto Maple Leafs.

On the advice he’s gotten from friends and family about this experience:

I’ve had a lot of people reach out in support just saying, “Try to focus on what you can control and go out there and play. You gave a lot here and you can’t really worry about whatever else is going on around you. You’ve just got to go out there and be yourself.” I’ve had a lot of support from a lot of people.

On the understanding response and support he’s gotten from good friends that are former teammates on the Islanders about his decision:

It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life. It took me some time to do it because of how difficult it was. I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do until I made the decision. To have their understanding, I’m really appreciative and many of them are very good friends and people that helped me greatly on and off the ice. I thank them for their support, not just for coming to my wedding, but I think, over the years, as a player maturing and becoming who I am today.

Mike Babcock on how Tavares has been handling the buildup to this game:

He is not a kid. He has been around. What he did was make a decision and made a decision for his family and for himself. We totally respect that and he is a huge part of our franchise. We want to play hard here today. We didn’t play well against the Islanders last time and we want to play better here tonight. It’s two good teams. Should be a lot of fun.

Babcock on the response from fans to Tavares’ decision:

People come up to me all the time and say, “I am a Red Wings fan.” I say, “I am, too.” John is an Islander fan and will be for life. He spent a long time here and did everything he could while he was here. Now he is doing the same for the Leafs.

Babcock on Tavares’ impact since joining the Leafs:

The big thing is, as good of a player as he is, he is a better person and he is a better professional. When you look at the group of young people that we have that need influence… He doesn’t say a whole bunch, he just comes in and does it right every single day and makes us a better franchise. He is a Toronto guy. He is proud to be there. He treats people and fans right. He treats the players right and the staff right and makes a huge impact every day just by being himself.

Babcock on how the Islander fans might react:

The biggest thing for me is, when you pay your money, you can say what you want. I am a big believer in life that you always want to be proud of yourself and how you handle yourself, period. I think we’ve all had moments in our life that we’ve had some things slip out that you can’t get back. You can’t get them back. I know my wife gives me a good tightening on that stuff on a regular basis. I just think it’s important to handle yourself well. This is going to be a good hockey game tonight with good teams and good people representing both sides. It should be a lot of fun.

Matchup Stats

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines


#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


#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#8 Jake Muzzin – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#52 Martin Marincin – #3 Justin Holl


#40 Garret Sparks
#31 Frederik Andersen

Injured: Nazem Kadri (concussion), Jake Gardiner (back), Travis Dermott (shoulder)
Nic Petan, Igor Ozhiganov

New York Islanders Projected Lines


#27 Anders Lee – #29 Brock Nelson – #7 Jordan Eberle
#16 Andrew Ladd – #13 Matt Barzal – #12 Josh Bailey
#18 Anthony Beauvillier – #51 Valtteri Filppula – #47 Leo Komarov
#17 Matt Martin – #53 Casey Cizikas – #15 Cal Clutterbuck


#2 Nick Leddy – #55 Johnny Boychuk
#3 Adam Pelech – #6 Ryan Pulock
#4 Thomas Hickey – #25 Devon Toews


#40 Robin Lehner
#1 Thomas Greiss