Two top-five Canadian teams go at it for the second time this season tonight as the Toronto Maple Leafs begin their road trip through Western Canada against the Pacific Division-leading Calgary Flames (9 p.m EST, TSN4, SNW).
The Leafs and Flames have produced similar results this season in terms of goals share, although they’ve arrived at those numbers in different ways. They both sit top ten in GF/60 (the Leafs are second and Flames are eighth) and in GA/60 (the Leafs are ninth and the Flames are eighth). The Leafs have generated offense at some of the highest rates seen across the league, but the Flames are not far behind. Toronto is first in scoring chances per 60 and Calgary is eighth, while the Leafs are sixth in unblocked shot attempts per 60 and the Flames are ninth.
Where they differ is how they’ve arrived at top ten goals against numbers. The Leafs allow a lot of shot attempts — although they perform better by scoring chances and shots against in the slot area — but have benefitted from elite goaltending (fourth in 5-on-5 Sv%). The Flames, on the other hand, have much lower shot and chance rates defensively but have gotten average — and, at times, poor — goaltending (15th in 5-on-5 Sv%).
After starting 55 games for them last year, Mike Smith has played a reduced role this year, giving up a lot of starts to David Rittich. Both goalies have played virtually the same number of games, with Rittich posting much more favourable numbers than Smith (.913 Sv% vs. .895Sv%, 0.5 goals saves against expected vs. -10.4, respectively), and it’s Rittich that the Leafs will face off against tonight.
There’s no question that with Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner out of the lineup especially, the Flames are icing a much deeper group of skilled puck movers on the backend for this game, so the Leafs’ forwards are going to have to do a good job of disrupting their flow coming out of their own zone and generating plenty of offensive-zone time to ease the burden on their shorthanded blue line. They’ll also need to support the defense well without the puck as the Flames’ blue line group can jump up and bring numbers into the attack about as well as any group in the league.
This is a Flames team that has lost just six times in regulation at home this season and runs a lethal power play that clicks at nearly 26% at the Saddledome. After taking care of business at home against some tepid opponents of late, this is a good test for the Leafs as we close in on the final month until playoffs.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the Flames’ defense core:
They’ve got a good team. They’re playing well. I like their group — their back end can really skate can move the puck, obviously. They’ve got a number of players that can really skate and really move the puck. They’re involved in their offense, they do a good job, and they’ve got good forwards. They breakout fast and they come at you with speed, and they’re heavy in the o-zone, so it’s a good opportunity for our team.
Babcock on Mitch Marner:
Well, he’s smarter than everybody else. He’s got better edges so he can go faster. He’s like Datsyuk was; he’s faster with the puck than he is without it, but he’s an elite defensive player. He can check it back as good as anybody in hockey, and he likes hockey. When you’ve got the right personal energy and you bring it every day, you make your teammates better around you. He’s an important player for us.
Babcock on the growth in Morgan Rielly’s game:
To me, he’s a top Dman, if not [better], in the NHL. He can play with and without it. We’re going to need him to be special here tonight. He’s an important player for us. Especially when you take Gards and Dermy out of the mix, we don’t have the same kind of puck skill on the back end that we normally do, or skating. More comes back to him, but I’m sure he’ll be fine.
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
#63 Tyler Ennis – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #42 Trevor Moore
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#8 Jake Muzzin – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#52 Martin Marincin – #92 Igor Ozhiganov
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Injured: Nazem Kadri (concussion), Jake Gardiner (back), Travis Dermott (shoulder)
Scratched: Nic Petan, Justin Holl
Calgary Flames Projected Lines
#13 Johnny Gaudreau – #23 Sean Monahan – #28 Elias Lindholm
#19 Matthew Tkachuk – #11 Mikael Backlund – #67 Michael Frolik
#93 Sam Bennett – #77 Mark Jankowski – #27 Austin Czarnik
#88 Andrew Mangiapane – #10 Derek Ryan – #21 Garnet Hathaway
#5 Mark Giordano – #7 T.J Brodie
#55 Noah Hanifin – #24 Travis Hamonic
#3 Oscar Fantenberg – #4 Rasmus Andersson
#33 David Rittich
#41 Mike Smith
Injured: Michael Stone, James Neal, Oliver Kylington