Returning home after earning five of six possible points on their trip through Western Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs have no time to rest as they take on the league’s best team in a possible round two matchup preview (7 p.m EST, SN Ontario).

With the strength of the top three teams in the Atlantic, it’s all but guaranteed that Boston-Toronto will be one matchup in Round 1, with the winner of that series going up against Tampa — assuming they take care of business in their first-round series. Generally, the first game back after a road trip doesn’t lead to the best performances, but the Leafs have no shortage of reasons to get up for this challenge tonight.

Fortunately, the Leafs have come to play in their two contests against Tampa this year. The 4-1 Lightning win on December 13th was one of the Leafs better even-strength performances of the year to that point, despite the scoreline. The second was a convincing 4-2 Toronto victory on January 17th. The Leafs rode some late-game score effects in the first matchup to finish with 57% of shot attempts and 47% of scoring chances, while they were much more competitive from the get-go in the second matchup and finished with 52% of shot attempts and 69% of scoring chances.

Generally speaking, the Leafs have skated well against with the Lightning and gone toe-to-toe with them depth-wise during the season series, but they do enter this matchup the more banged up side this time around; the Leafs are missing two key pieces on the blue in Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner. That said, the Lightning are currently without two regulars in Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman on their backend.

As far as the lineup goes, the rotation amongst the forward group will continue tonight. Zach Hyman didn’t practice this morning, but it appears it was merely precautionary. If he did miss out, that would affect the makeup of the whole lineup, as Hyman has played virtually all year next to John Tavares, a line that will likely take on the Point-Kucherov line tonight.

Assuming he does play, there will still be at least one change as Trevor Moore will come back in for Tyler Ennis. It doesn’t appear as if Connor Brown is part of that rotation of forwards despite his lack of production and play-driving ability this year, but one would assume that’s mostly due to his heavy usage on the penalty kill. The poor performance from Ennis-Petan-Moore in their game as a line doesn’t lead me to believe Frederik Gauthier will spend much time out of the lineup, either, as he’s the only other center outside of Petan.

The Bruins left the door open a crack with a regulation loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday, meaning if the Leafs win their game in hand tonight, they’d be back within two points of Boston as the schedule hits game #70.


Game Day Quotes

Jon Cooper on Mitch Marner:

The one thing about Marner is he is as smart a player as this league has seen not only this year but has ever seen. Somebody who can elude defenders and do the things he does with the puck on the offensive side of it translates on the defensive side as well. That’s why he PKs and that’s why he does all of those things. The goal against Calgary… He knew that play was happening before the defenseman did. That’s how he got the breakaway. When you have a brain like that, you can play both sides of the puck.

Mike Babcock on injured defensemen Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner:

They both were real happy this morning, said they’re progressing, and seemed to be in a good mood.

Babcock on Tampa’s long run of contention:

Obviously a real good team, a veteran-laden team. They’ve done a good job of keeping their players and acquiring more players. They’ve obviously scouted real good, so they can make trades and get more players. You know, when you think of it, I don’t know when Yzerman arrived there, but they already had Stamkos and Hedman — not a bad start. They’ve built a program there that’s obviously the envy of the league right now.

Babcock on Nikita Kucherov:

He’s got elite edges, elite hockey sense, knows where he’s going with the puck before he gets it. I mean, his skating is second to none. He’s playing with good players as well, so if you add it all together, he’s the most dangerous guy in hockey right now. He’s feeling real good about himself and playing on a good team with a good power play, lots of power play touches.

Babcock on what the team did well in their two games vs. Tampa this year:

Lots of things; we skated well, we looked after the puck, we were all dialled in. That’s what you’ve got to be today — you need to get good goaltending and have good specialty teams to have success. They’re a good team, without any question. We like playing them; they’re a lot of fun to play against. Ideally, it’ll be a high-end hockey game today.


Matchup Stats


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards 

#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #29 William Nylander
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #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
#52 Martin Marincin – #92 Igor Ozhiganov

Goaltenders

#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks

Injured: Jake Gardiner (back), Travis Dermott (shoulder), Kasperi Kapanen (illness)
Scratched: 
Nic Petan, Justin Holl,


Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines

Forwards

#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #10 J.T Miller
#9 Tyler Johnson – #21 Brayden Point – #89 Nikita Kucherov
#17 Alex Killorn – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #7 Mathieu Joseph
#73 Adam Erne – #13 Cedric Paquette – #37 Yanni Gourde

Defensemen

#77 Victor Hedman – #98 Mikhail Sergachev
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #81 Erik Cernak
#55 Braydon Coburn – #44 Jan Rutta

Goaltenders

#88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#70 Louis Domingue