As the NHL regular season standings go, this game as meaningless as it gets tonight, with the Tampa Bay Lightning having sown up the President’s Trophy with a historic 60+-win season and the Toronto Maple Leafs locked into the third place in the Atlantic Division with two games left to play.
That said, the Leafs are going to get the opportunity to bring Jake Gardiner back into the lineup tonight after about five weeks on the shelf with a back injury. Andreas Johnsson will also return, while sitting out will be Nazem Kadri — maintenance day — and Jake Muzzin, who continues to battle an illness.
Expect the coaching staff to carefully manage Gardiner’s minutes, but the fact that he’s getting some game reps in prior to the regular season is a positive sign for the Leafs, who — barring a setback — should be able to ice their full complement on the blue line (a rarity since the Jake Muzzin addition) for the start of the Bruins series. For now, Calle Rosen remains in on a pairing with Travis Dermott on the right, while Gardiner rejoins his usual playing partner in Nikita Zaitsev.
Meanwhile, William Nylander will slide into the middle of the ice in between Johnsson and Connor Brown with Kadri sitting out. Not to read too far into a maintenance day, but if Kadri were to miss any time going forward in the playoffs at any point, the more reps Nylander has down the middle, the better.
On the Lightning side of things, Victor Hedman will not play in either of the final two games of the season, J.T. Miller will also miss tonight’s game, and Dan Girardi remains out indefinitely. They are expected to start Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, while the Leafs will counter with Frederik Andersen at the other end.
Broadcast: TSN4 & TSN1050, 7:00 p.m. EST puck drop
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the plan for Jake Gardiner:
It’s basically just trying to get him up and running so he can feel good going into the playoffs. When you’ve been off to five weeks, it’s really tough, no matter how good of a player he is. Gards is a really good player, but you also want to be feeling good to play well. It is an important time of year. It looks like he has a window here and we’re going to take advantage of it.
Babcock on where they’ve missed Gardiner the most:
In the room, on the ice… I mean, everywhere. He is a really, really good player. He moves the puck real good. He is way better defensively than people think. He’s an important player on our team. He is a 50-point guy who +20 or something like that. You just can’t get them. It is so important. We’ve seen… We’ve been through it with a real cycle here, obviously. You’ve seen how hard it is to be a good d-man in the NHL. He is one of them.
Babcock on the plan to manage Gardiner in his first game back:
What we do is we get him out there and see what is going on, and then see how he is feeling. It is no different than if you hurt your ankle and you come back, the first time you get hit, you think you broke your ankle. You come to the bench and two seconds later, you feel good. The same thing is going to happen to him. He is going to get hit. He’s going to come to the bench and think, “Oh my God, the wheels are off.” Two seconds later, he will be up and running. We’re cognizant of what has gone on and what is coming.
Babcock on the level of pressure the Lightning face entering the playoffs and his experience with that from his President’s Trophy-winning Red Wings teams:
The first round is always the hardest for sure until you loosen up and get going. In saying all off that, though, would you rather be in their situation or everyone else’s situation? I’d rather be the best team every single time. There are pressures and expectations and you go from there.
It is not like Tampa just started on this journey. They’ve been on this journey for a long time. It was just a couple years ago that Coop did an unbelievable job and they just missed the playoffs because of all of the injuries. That is just the facts in the NHL.
60 wins in today’s NHL… 45 is an unbelievable year. Good on them. They’ve got good depth. They’ve improved their team. Their players have changed over and over and over again. They’ve done a real nice job in managing the cap. They’re a good team. We are all envious.
Babcock on the job Jon Cooper has done with the Lightning:
If you’ve known Coop for a long time… I’ve known Coop for a long, long time. Obviously, he has been good wherever he’s been. That, to me, is what happens. Wherever you go, if you win, you’re pretty good at it. If you can work real closely with your management team and you can build a program… You can coach all you want, but if you don’t have players… He’s managed those players and they’ve done a real nice job of keeping their players.
They’ve done a real nice job of getting their players to buy in to whatever their salary structure is. They’ve added and added and added. They’ve drafted and scouted and added more players. Every time you see their prospects, they look like they’ve got more coming. That, to me, is the sign of what he’s done. But he’s done a real nice job and has won year after year.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper on what there is to play for in the final two games:
You want players feeling good about themselves going into the playoffs, but as soon as Saturday at 4 p.m. for us comes, I don’t think anyone will even think about the regular season and what has gone on. You go through these last two games, where teams really aren’t playing for any position, but guys want to feel good about themselves.
Power plays want to have success. Penalty kills want to get through those. You don’t want to be in situations where you are hanging your goaltender out to dry or letting things in your game slip, but you’re fully understanding the intensity level — as professional as these players are — are probably not going to be the same as they are going to be next Wednesday.
Cooper on what John Tavares has brought to the Leafs:
I think he has brought to the Leafs what McDonagh has brought to us. He is obviously having a career year with the Leafs, but they’ve had injuries and Tavares seems to kind of be that stabilizing force that… I don’t want to call him depth scoring because they’ve always been able to score, but he just another weapon in their arsenal. But he is a veteran guy that has been through this league, and I’m sure in this locker room, he’s a guy they lean on, just as McDonagh has been for us.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#12 Patrick Marleau – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#11 Andreas Johnsson – #29 William Nylander – #28 Connor Brown
#63 Tyler Ennis – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #42 Trevor Moore
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#48 Calle Rosen – #23 Travis Dermott
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Injured: Jake Muzzin (illness), Nazem Kadri (maintenance)
Scratched: Nic Petan, Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
Ondrej Palat – Steven Stamkos – Tyler Johnson
Yanni Gourde – Brayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn – Anthony Cirelli – Mathieu Joseph
Ryan Callahan – Cedric Paquette – Adam Erne
Ryan McDonagh – Erik Cernak
Anton Stralman – Mikhail Sergachev
Braydon Coburn – Jan Rutta
Scratched: J.T. Miller, Danick Martel, Cameron Gaunce
Injured: Louis Domingue, Victor Hedman, Dan Girardi