After picking up a much-needed two points with a spirited third-period effort against a tired San Jose Sharks team last night, the second half of the back-to-back for the Toronto Maple Leafs comes tonight on the road against a rested Montreal Canadiens team (7 p.m. ET, CBC).
We are starting to get to the point in the season where we can evaluate a semi-meaningful sample of games played (12). Currently, the Leafs sit sixth in goals per 60 minutes and 27th in goals against per 60 minutes — a stark contrast, to be sure, with the underlying metrics breaking down like so offensively:
- 6th in GF/60
- 2nd in CF/60
- 13th in xGF/60
- 2nd in SCF/60
In terms of the difference between the team’s expected goals and their other shots and scoring chance rates, it’s attributable to the fact that the Leafs haven’t generated as much action in the low slot. Glancing at their shot location chart from hockeyviz.com, they’ve generated high levels of unblocked shots higher in the slot, and not so much in tight:
Now for the defensive numbers:
- 27th in GA/60
- 16th in CA/60
- 17th in xGA/60
- 11th in SCA/60
Why has this Leafs team performed like a relatively average defensive squad but ranks fifth last in goals against? In a word, goaltending. It’s not hard to picture results like these turning on their head in the span of a few weeks, but there’s no doubt Frederik Andersen and Michael Hutchinson have been performing at the lower end of the league among goaltending duos to start the year.
Currently, Andersen ranks 44th of 53 goalies with at least 120 minutes in GSAx (the difference between goals against and expected goals against) at -5.7, while Hutchinson ranks 31st at -2.6 in just 193 minutes. There aren’t many places to go but up for this duo — and after a win a solid performance from Andersen last night, the Leafs are hoping Hutchinson can start to reverse the tide in his own game starting tonight in Montreal.
On the Canadiens’ side of things, the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher line remains a mainstay, but there is a lot of juggling happening on the other forward lines. The struggle to find a fit for Jonathan Drouin has continued early this season, while rookie Nick Suzuki has been bumped around the lineup quite a bit as well. Tonight, based on how Claude Julien had his team lining up in practice, Drouin will reunite with Max Domi and Joel Armia, while sophomore Jesperi Kotkaniemi will center hard-working wingers Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron. That leaves Suzuki on the bottom line with Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins.
On defence, the Habs have started to solidify themselves beyond a reasonably consistent pair in Victor Mete and Shea Weber. For the latter half of the team’s 10 games this year, Brett Kulak and Jeff Petry’s pair has given Montreal a sort of 1A/1B situation. Kulak was a throwaway in a trade at the beginning of last season that involved former Leaf Rinat Valiev, but he’s given the Habs a much-needed element to round out their top four on defense. Both top pairs have been a big part of Montreal’s solid 5-on-5 numbers and have allowed them to slide Ben Chiarot into a PK role with easier matchups at evens alongside talented rookie Cale Fleury.
Performance-wise, Claude Julien is right to be satisfied with how the team is playing at 5-on-5, as they’ve been solid in that area. The Habs have constructed themselves an identity around playing hard, fast and with a commitment to their structure over four lines, giving themselves a good chance to come out ahead in most games if they can finish on enough of their chances.
Of course, when compared to the rest of the talented Atlantic Division, they don’t have the same number of high-end offensive difference-makers. But they’re 5th in overall xGF% and CF% on the season — close to where they finished last season — and those kinds of numbers put a team in a good position to outplay their overall skill level on many nights. All indicators are the Habs are going to hang around the playoff race all season long again this year. As the Leafs learned in a similar back-to-back situation earlier this season (a 6-5 SO loss after coughing up a 4-1 lead in the third), they’re going to be no easy out.
If recent history in these back-to-backs is any indication, expect the Leafs to swap some fresh legs into the lineup at puck drop, altering the makeup of the projected lines listed below. With no morning skate, we won’t know the final look until warmups.
Game Day Quotes
Claude Julien on his team’s performance through 10 games:
What I don’t like is the PK right now — that’s what we tried to address. Again, 5-on-5, we’re scoring goals — we’re scoring more than we’re giving up. At the end of the day, the other part I don’t like is being .500. Those are two things: PK and being .500. Finding ways to win is important and if our penalty kill gets better, it’ll increase our chacnes of wiinning.
Brendan Gallagher on the Canadiens’ 67.6% penalty kill (30th in the NHL):
We’ve always had a really good penalty kill here. There is no doubt in our mind that at some point it’s going to turn around here. Hopefully, this next game starts a trend.
Gallagher on the Leafs vs. Habs rivalry on the ice:
There is a little bit of intensity and rivalry between the players and that’s starting to pick up the last couple of years. We both want the same thing. We know how competitive it is going to be later in the year for these points to get into the playoffs. These points at the start of the year are just as valuable. We know when we play these divisional teams how important these games are. I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t an intense, competitive game for sure.
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
#30 Michael Hutchinson (starter)
#31 Frederik Andersen
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Nic Petan
Injured: Zach Hyman, Travis Dermott, John Tavares
Marner – Nylander – Matthews
Kerfoot – Moore – Spezza
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
#90 Thomas Tatar – #24 Phillip Danault – #11 Brendan Gallagher
#92 Jonathan Drouin – #13 Max Domi – #40 Joel Armia
#62 Artturi Lehkonen – #15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #41 Paul Byron
#21 Nick Cousins – #44 Nate Thompson – #14 Nick Suzuki
#53 Victor Mete – #6 Shea Weber
#17 Brett Kulak – #26 Jeff Petry
#8 Ben Chiarot – #20 Cale Fleury
#31 Carey Price (starter)
#37 Keith Kinkaid
Injured: Noah Juulsen