The Toronto Maple Leafs will attempt to salvage a split in their home-and-home set against the Sabres in round two on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. ET, CBC).
This season has been a rocky journey for Michael Hutchinson, who has now given up an average of 4.55 goals a game in his six starts this year — a career-low for a goalie that has always struggled with consistency at the NHL level. Sheldon Keefe and the leaders on the Leafs roster were keen on giving the 29-year-old another chance after the coaching change and, while that opportunity might not be over just yet, the onus on Kyle Dubas to address the years-long roster hole is reaching “surely they can’t do this any longer” status.
With Frederik Andersen in November mode, the Leafs should have a much better go of keeping the puck out of their net tonight. After a routinely below-average October, Andersen has climbed back with a .937 save percentage in ten starts in November, including a shutout against Detroit on Wednesday. That superb stretch has brought his season number back up to .919, which is just above the .918 average he seemingly posts every year. Of goalies with at least 300 minutes played this season, steady Freddy now sits 13th with 2.7 more goals saved than expected.
The Sabres will counter with Carter Hutton, who is 6-5-2 with a .903 save percentage this season, in their crease tonight.
With Alex Kerfoot back from his two-game suspension, not many were expecting Jason Spezza — who has six points in his last six games — to be the odd-man-out, but it appears he will be, with Kerfoot slotting in at 3C instead of on the left wing. It’s likely down to load-management for the team’s elder statesman more than anything else, but we won’t know for sure until Keefe addresses the media closer to 5 p.m. Spezza has looked more comfortable playing at center under Keefe so far — he’s got more opportunities to possess the puck and survey the ice, which has given him more time to be creative and make plays, which is where his main strength lies. Kerfoot, on the other hand, gives the team a little more pace, jam, and defensive awareness on the third line.
Once in the offensive zone last night, the Leafs were able to break the Sabres down and generate a ton of scoring chances, but they’ll need to avoid feeding the Sabres transition games as much as they did last night in Buffalo, where some puck-management sloppiness led to turnovers on the breakout. On top of that, a little less time and space for Jack Eichel and a few more saves from Andersen would go a long way.
Expectations should be high for the urgency level from the Leafs tonight; they’re now even with the Sabres on points in the divisional standings and Buffalo has a game in hand. There is plenty to get up for between the standings implications, the team’s need to end its ugly losing trend in back-to-back situations, and Sheldon Keefe’s home coaching debut.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on his first game at home as head coach on HNIC:
I am excited for it — even more so now. Things have been going well here in my previous games, but what we want to be is a team that can sustain when things are going well, and when they don’t go well, we want to be able to push back and get better quickly. We have a chance to do that on home ice. I am excited for tomorrow.
Keefe on Auston Matthews playing just under 25 minutes, a career-high, and whether he struggled throughout the game:
I thought that he definitely had some chances. I didn’t think really any of our guys had great nights tonight, to be honest. I thought some of their best people were controlling things out there. I didn’t think we had the same level of play throughout our lineup.
With Auston, I played him a lot early in the game. That might’ve hurt us when we were down playing from behind in the second half. We couldn’t use our bench like we’d like to — like we have in some other games. But we need all of our guys to be better tomorrow.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #11 Zach Hyman
#61 Nic Petan – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#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)
Scratched: Dmytro Timashov
Injured: Mitch Marner, Trevor Moore
Barrie – Nylander – Matthews
Kerfoot – Petan – Kapanen
Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines
#68 Victor Oloffson – #9 Jack Eichel – #23 Sam Reinhart
#13 Jimmy Vesey – #37 Casey Mittelstadt – #90 Marcus Johansson
#53 Jeff Skinner – #22 Johan Larsson – #43 Conor Sheary
#28 Zemgus Girgensons – #74 Rasmus Asplund – #15 Jean-Sebastien Dea
#19 Jake McCabe – #4 Zach Bogosian
#62 Brandon Montour – #55 Rasmus Ristolainen
#6 Marco Scandella – #10 Henri Jokiharju
#40 Carter Hutton (starter)
#35 Linus Ullmark
Injured: Rasmus Dahlin, Matt Hunwick, Kyle Okposo, Vladamir Sobotka, Evan Rodrigues, Tage Thompson