For the Toronto Maple Leafs, desperation is kicking in, or at least it should be. Losing ground rapidly in the standings 22 games into the season (9-9-4), the Leafs are attempting to kickstart a turnaround tonight in one of the tougher buildings in the league, the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, TSN4).
With Trevor Moore placed on IR, the Leafs have recalled 23-year-old Pierre Engvall from the Marlies and he will make his NHL debut tonight on a line with Frederik Gauthier and Nick Shore. If you followed the Marlies down the stretch and into the playoffs last spring, you’ll know Engvall showed significant growth in his game and he has carried that over to start 2019-20 with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 15 games (ranked 13th in the AHL, fourth in u23 points).
Whoever has played with Gauthier and Shore has taken care of a lot of the puck carrying duties for the line (Timashov, Petan), so Engvall will need to be confident in that area of the game tonight. He’ll also be tested by the number of defensive zone starts he’ll be involved in, assuming the coaching staff follows the same rigid zone-start deployment with the Gauthier line as they have all season. He’s not expected to kill penalties for the team right away, but expect him to play a role there before long.
The only other change the Leafs will make tonight is the swapping of Tyson Barrie and Justin Holl on the defense pairs. While that may not appease the fans who wanted more of a dramatic shakeup after Saturday’s loss in Pittsburgh, it does make sense to shelter the struggling Barrie more while giving Justin Holl an opportunity of increased ice time after his steady play defensively early this year. Holl moving up beside Jake Muzzin will mean a dose of tougher competition than he’s ever seen to date in the NHL, especially against a deep Vegas forward group.
The Golden Knights, through their 22 games, are the early front runner for the unluckiest team in the league statistically. They’re third in the league in xGF% at 54.5%, but their actual GF% ranks 26th:
Next to Minnesota, Vegas has the biggest negative discrepancy between xGF and GF, while the Leafs are getting about what they’ve deserved lately based on the shot location data.
Coming off of their worst loss of the season on Saturday — some would argue worst in years — this Leafs team’s pride and resolve is going to be tested tonight against a good opponent in a tough building. The fan chorus calling for Mike Babcock’s pink slip is growing louder by the day, and how the team responds tonight will say a lot about whether this group is capable of fighting their way out of this without emergency intervention from the front office.
Game Day Quotes
Auston Matthews his line getting its swagger back:
I think our line has just been competing. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve tried to be more consistent as a three-man — or five-man — unit when we’re out there. Especially us three, just hunt pucks, work hard, and just let our skill take over. But I think when we’re skating and we’re working hard, it just comes out naturally. We want to continue to have the puck in our hands and play in the offensive zone.
Jake Muzzin on what has plagued the team during their losing streak:
Well, when you have a lot of skilled guys and a team that’s skilled, you just rely on the skill sometimes. It takes more than that.
Muzzin on how the team is handling this rough stretch:
We had a meeting. We talked about what we needed to talk about, I think. It was just kind of an open discussion with the players to get a clear kind of view on what needs to happen.
Mike Babcock on tonight’s matchup:
When we played Vegas last time, I thought it was a real good hockey game. There wasn’t a lot of room. I don’t expect there to be any tonight.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #19 Jason Spezza – #61 Nic Petan
#47 Pierre Engvall – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #26 Nick Shore
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #94 Tyson Barrie
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#50 Kasimir Kaskisuo
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Dmytro Timashov
Injured: Mitch Marner, Alexander Kerfoot, Trevor Moore
Matthews – Johnsson – Nylander
Kapanen – Petan – Spezza
Vegas Golden Knights Projected Lines
#67 Max Pacioretty – #71 William Karlsson – #19 Reilly Smith
#81 Jonathan Marchessault – #21 Cody Eakin – #61 Mark Stone
#89 Alex Tuch – #26 Paul Stastny – #9 Cody Glass
28 Will Carrier – #92 Tomas Nosek – #75 Ryan Reaves
#3 Brayden McNabb – #88 Nate Schmidt
#14 Nicolas Hague – #27 Shea Theodore
#15 Jon Merrill – #5 Deryk Engelland
#29 Marc-Andre Fleury (starter)
#30 Malcolm Subban