Tackling their final back-to-back of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in a tough situation tonight in an all-meaningful game for the rested Carolina Hurricanes, who continue their battle with the Habs and Blue Jackets for a playoff spot (7:30 p.m, TSN4).
It’s a fun situation in the Eastern wildcard race at the moment with three teams — all within a point of each other and all with the same number of games remaining — fighting for two spots with just one week left in the season. And the Leafs are going to be smack dab in the middle of all of it, with games against the Hurricanes tonight and the Canadiens on Saturday.
This matchup is also not totally meaningless for the Leafs. Their odds of securing home-ice advantage have dwindled, but if Boston loses in a big matchup against Columbus tonight and the Leafs pick up two points, they will only be two points back while holding the ROW tiebreaker with two games left to play.
For most of the past few weeks, Carolina has had a clear advantage over Columbus and Montreal for one of the two remaining playoff spots, but a small dip as of late coinciding with a five-game winning streak for the Blue Jackets has put them right back in peril. That said, take nothing away from what the Hurricanes have accomplished in the last few months: They own the third-best record in the NHL in 2019 (28-12-2) after starting the season with very similar numbers and results to last season.
As most of us are aware of by now, the Hurricanes are often successful at out-shooting and out-chancing their opponents — they’re the only team in the league that is averaging over three expected goals per 60 minutes (3.12, next closest are Vegas at 2.83 and Toronto at 2.81). If you compare the Leafs and Canes in their last ten games, however, it stacks ups favourably for Toronto: The Leafs‘ numbers in those games are even more impressive (58 CF%, 61 SCF%, 4-4-2 record) compared to the Canes’ 56 CF%, 57 SCF%, and 5-5-0 record. While it hasn’t always turned into the results the Leafs are looking for, there is something to be encouraged about with where their underlying numbers are trending just a week and change out from the start of the first round.
Garret Sparks will receive what will presumably be his last start of the year tonight, with the team aiming to get Frederik Andersen in against Tampa Bay and Montreal. This is a chance to end a bit of a disappointing first full NHL regular season for Sparks personally on a high note. At the other end, Petr Mrazek, who has continued to share starts with Curtis McElhinney, will start tonight. Mrazek’s year has been solid along with McElhinney’s and it’s finally giving the Hurricanes good enough goaltending to support a deep and talented roster. Mrazek ranks 17th among starters in goals saved against expected while sporting a .911 Sv% and a .856 HDSv% (13th among goalies with at least 300 minutes played) — his best numbers since playing on the Datsyuk-era Red Wings in 2015-16.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the tough competition in his team’s last three games:
Yeah, no question about it. You know, obviously, we play in a real good division and it’s lots of fun, it’s competitive each and every night. It’s good for our group. This last stretch we’ve had, we know we’ve given up way less. We haven’t won necessarily every night, but we’ve given up way less. It’s been a good thing for our team to have to dig in.
I thought it was a good night for Freddy last night so that’s positive. Sparky has a chance to bounce back here tonight, which I think is important for him as well and so we’re going to have to play well for him. They’re a real stingy team, [they] don’t give up a whole bunch, so there won’t be a lot of room tonight. We’re going to have to be patient. We’re going to have to play hard.
Babcock on Andreas Johnsson and Jake Muzzin’s status for tonight:
I won’t know until tonight. There’s a few game-time decisions just on guys health as far as being sick and stuff like that, so we’ll decide here tonight.
Babcock on this team vs. the one that played Boston last year:
Obviously, a year older guys have been through it. Some of our young guys are better players, which is a real positive thing for us. Last year seems like a hundred years ago, to be honest with you. We play Carolina today, so that’s going to be our focus, but if you look at it, we’ve had a high percentage [chance] of playing Boston for a long time and it’s given lots of opportunities to look at them and watch very closely.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#29 William Nylander – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #28 Connor Brown
#63 Tyler Ennis – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #42 Trevor Moore
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#48 Calle Rosen – #52 Martin Marincin
#40 Garret Sparks
#31 Frederik Andersen
Injured: Jake Gardiner (back), Andreas Johnsson (illness), Jake Muzzin (illness)
Scratched: Nic Petan, Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov
Carolina Hurricanes Projected Lines
#21 Nino Niederreiter – #20 Sebastien Aho – #14 Justin Williams
#79 Micheal Ferland – #11 Jordan Staal – #86 Teuvo Teravainen
#37 Andrei Svechnikov – #71 Lucas Wallmark – #48 Jordan Martinook
#13 Warren Foegele – #42 Greg McKegg – #23 Brock McGinn
#74 Jaccob Slavin – #19 Dougie Hamilton
#22 Brett Pesce – #27 Justin Faulk
#4 Haydn Fleury – #57 Trevor Van Riemsdyk
#34 Petr Mrazek
#35 Curtis McElhinney
Injured: Calvin De Hann, Clark Bishop