In their final of four back-to-backs in the month of October, the Toronto Maple Leafs begin another tough test against San Jose tonight as they look to keep up with the fast early pace in the Atlantic Division standings (7 p.m. ET, Sportsnet One).
Two losses early this week flipped the script again in Leaf land, with the mood quickly shifting back towards panic mode among the fanbase. While that isn’t (and shouldn’t) be the case inside the locker room — knowing they’re 5-4-2 through a brutal schedule, average-to-below-average goaltending and a mess of injuries — there is a heightened sense of urgency heading into a weekend featuring tough opponents in the (albeit tired) San Jose Sharks tonight and a rested Montreal team on Saturday.
Based on how they lined up in practice yesterday, the Leafs could revert to their “regular” sans-Tavares lines that we saw Monday against Columbus, except with Kevin Gravel in the lineup in place of Martin Marincin. That may all be different at game time; we may see Frederik Gauthier at 3C again instead of Jason Spezza and Marincin back in on the bottom pair in place of Gravel.
Tonight’s game presents a different matchup challenge at forward than a top-line-driven Bruins team. The Sharks have good depth, competitiveness, and experience through four lines, probably more than Boston does without David Krejci in their lineup, and a formidable top four on the blue line. The Sharks did play last night, though, and if the Leafs can get four lines rolling like they’ve shown they can in bursts this year, they should be able to outlast the Sharks tonight. That said, this is a veteran San Jose team with a lot of collective experience and faith in their ability to lock it down when they have to, so a good start — which have largely eluded the Leafs at home outside of the Boston HNIC game last weekend — will be paramount.
Frederik Andersen starts in net for Toronto, once again taking the first of the back-to-back before an HNIC game against the Habs tomorrow. Clearly, the coaching staff isn’t budging on the public pressure to switch up the starting order, and the back-to-back goalie split debate is getting to be a tiresome one — it’s perfect fodder for the media because they can second guess it any which way unless the Leafs happen to take all four points on offer. It will remain a talking point for sure, especially after Aaron Dell started for the Sharks in the first half of their back-to-back last night and was — in the words of head coach Pete Deboer — “our best player.”
That means tonight’s starter is Martin Jones, who has had quite the record against the Leafs: In nine career starts against Toronto, Jones is 7-1-1 with a .932 save percentage, with the Sharks allowing fewer than two goals against in those starts. It isn’t the most meaningful stat in the world given the two teams play each other twice a year, but it does speak to the fact that this hasn’t been a great matchup for the Leafs in recent seasons.
Expect Patrick Marleau to receive a well-earned quick thank you from the organization in his return to Toronto tonight, and the fact that he’s coming back to Toronto for his 1,500th game as a Shark is a fitting bit of happenstance. The Sharks have been using him on their top line on the right wing (stepping into the vacancy left by Joe Pavelski), where he’s tallied two goals and six points in six games since signing back in San Jose partway through the month.
Game Day Quotes
Pete DeBoer on the progress of his team’s 5v5 play:
It’s getting better. I still don’t think we are heavy or hard enough offensively in the offensive zone. I think we have moments, but we still — in the past — always had kind of a four-line identity built around that and I don’t feel we are there yet. Work in progress, but I think we are defending better than we were early. We aren’t beating ourselves with reckless turnovers as much. It is getting better.
Mike Babcock on if he misses leadership from Patrick Marleau at times like these:
Well I think you always miss people… times like what?
[Mark Masters: Well, things aren’t going so great for you right now]
What I’d say to you is: We’ve got five point in our first [five game segment] and seven in our second. We’re supposed to have 12 after two, so we did that. We’ve got to go 3-1 here in [the next four games] and everything’s just chugging on.
You’ve just got to keep getting better. Is having guys around like Patty as a voice good? Sure. Worrying about split milk doesn’t do you any good whatsoever. This is the group we have. We’re learning and growing together. We knew right from the get-go we had made lots of changes and there would be times where you didn’t like your shift or your game as good as the other. Just keep on keeping on. Life’s good.
Babcock on Marleau’s contract:
We knew right when we signed him, we couldn’t get him for two years. We tried. We knew the math didn’t work out when we signed him.
Babcock on Tyson Barrie:
I just think Barrie’s a really good player. I don’t think we have him at the level we perceive him to be or he wants to be at, but I don’t think that’s a big surprise. I think anytime you go anyplace new and you’re trying to find where your fit is — especially when you’re a powerplay guy and you don’t get to go out on the first unit like you used to — now you’ve got to go and find your way. But [Barrie] is a great teammate, ultra competitive, and wants to be great. When I have these conversations with him, he’s straightforward about it and where he wants to go, so I’m not very concerned.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #16 Mitch Marner
#42 Trevor Moore – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#41 Dmytro Timashov – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #26 Nick Shore
#8 Jake Muzzin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#25 Kevin Gravel – #3 Justin Holl
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Nic Petan
Injured: Zach Hyman, Travis Dermott, John Tavares
Marner – Nylander – Matthews
Kerfoot – Moore – Spezza
San Jose Sharks Projected Lines
#28 Timo Meier – #39 Logan Couture – #12 Patrick Marleau
#9 Evander Kane – #48 Tomas Hertl – #62 Kevin Labanc
#20 Marcus Sorensen – #19 Joe Thornton – #23 Barclay Goodrow
#72 Noah Gregor – #7 Dylan Gambrell – #68 Melker Karlsson
#44 Marc-Edouard Vlasic – #88 Brent Burns
#4 Brendan Dillon – #65 Erik Karlsson
#38 Mario Ferraro – #72 Tim Heed
#31 Martin Jones (starter)
#30 Aaron Dell
Injured: Radim Simek, Dalton Prout