After a spirited win against Vancouver on Tuesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs will continue their Western Canadian tour as they take on the streaking Calgary Flames, who are winners of six straight (9 p.m. ET, TSN).
Since Bill Peters’ resignation, the Flames have certainly been riding quite the new coaching wave under Geoff Ward. They’ve won six games in a row since November 27th (when Peters first left the bench before he was eventually let go), while their underlying numbers instantly improved since dipping massively during a seven-losses-in-eight-games stretch under Peters that included three shutout defeats. In terms of expected goals performance, here’s their rolling five-game average this season:
The Flames have dealt with an ugly, adverse situation extremely well, working their xGF share back to league-average and piling up points to propel themselves back into a divisional playoff spot.
Stop me if this quote from new coach Geoff Ward sounds familiar, Leafs fans:
We tell everybody, “You have to try to score.” That’s just how it is. We are not sending guys out there to be straight checkers or play that way. Everybody in our lineup has to try and score. We are seeing some guys get a little bit freed up now. I think that comes with a little bit of confidence. Some guys are willing to make plays and hang onto pucks a little bit longer because they are more confident with the way that they are playing. As a result, it has been good for us. It’s been key in our wins for sure.
Unsurprisingly, the Flames are riding a PDO surge at the moment: They’ve scored 16 goals and surrendered just 10 at 5-on-5 since the coaching change with a shooting percentage of 11.1% and a save percentage of .942. In their 27 games prior, their shooting percentage was a league-worst 5.9% and their save percentage ranked 25th at .909. Considering the Capitals led the league in 5-on-5 shooting percentage at the end of last season at a shade over 10%, the Flames have benefited from more than a little bit of good fortune since the coaching change.
The Flames’ line combinations have also been given a refresh under Ward. Their current lineup has their Gaudreau-Monahan-Lindholm top line from recent years split evenly among the group. That line has still played close to 300 minutes this year — which trumps all but one Leafs line (Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander) — but Ward is riding a four-line approach at evens right now and getting results.
As for the Leafs‘ line combinations, for now, the Pontus Aberg experiment next to Auston Matthews is over. Aberg only registered one shot attempt against the Canucks — a wrist shot from the high slot in the first period — and the fit never seemed quite right on paper or on the ice. Sheldon Keefe is going to try out Kasperi Kapanen in that spot tonight; they’re looking for someone who can still finish and carry the puck when needed, but who also can check the puck back, forecheck, and compete defensively. Kapanen certainly fits the bill when he’s on his game.
As a result, Aberg will slide down to the bottom line along with Jason Spezza and Nic Petan tonight. Engvall, who still hasn’t missed a game since being called up shortly before Keefe was hired and has done well alongside Spezza in recent games, will move up with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev.
The goaltending matchup will feature the red-hot Frederik Andersen (15-7-3, .921 Sv%, 4.6 GSAx), who typically owns the Flames (8-1-1), vs. David Rittich (14-7-4, .913 Sv%, -1.6 GSAx), who is dialed in right now as well but did concede six goals on 32 shots in his lone career start against the Leafs last March.
An all-Canadian matchup between a couple of teams riding post-coaching change boosts, in a building that — like in Vancouver — will have a split-crowd atmosphere, should make for more good late-night hockey viewing tonight.
Game Day Quotes
Milan Lucic on the two teams benefitting from a coaching change:
It just goes to show you there is no magic system. There is no magic philosophy. It is just whatever the players and the coaching staff are able to buy into. When everyone buys into what the team is trying to do, the team has success. I think that is what is going to make for a really good game here tonight. They are playing really well and so are we.
It is always fun when you play the Leafs. You get a lot of their fans in your home crowd and it makes for a great atmosphere.
Sheldon Keefe on Frederik Andersen’s amazing play and the decision to start him:
He’s in a groove, obviously. He means a lot to our team. We’ve known that, but the fact that he’s feeling good and then we had a day off yesterday, all of that, it was just a pretty easy decision.
John Tavares on the Leafs’ improvement since the coaching change:
We’ve been starting to get better results. Some of the changes have played into our group really well and guys have really embraced it and tried to really understand that we have to find ways to win and play a lot better than we did. We had to take responsibility for what happened. We just stayed with it. We kept working as a group and staying together, and we continue to feel more comfortable with what we are doing, and finding ways to win and play better. We are doing a lot better staying with it.
Flames head coach Geoff Ward on finding balance up front over four lines:
We’ve talked about wanting to get balance throughout our four lines. Over the last few hockey games, we are starting to see the benefits of some of that. Guys are getting opportunities to chip in. We tell everybody, “You have to try to score.” That’s just how it is. We are not sending guys out there to be straight checkers or play that way. Everybody in our lineup has to try and score. We are seeing some guys get a little bit freed up now. I think that comes with a little bit of confidence. Some guys are willing to make plays and hang onto pucks a little bit longer because they are more confident with the way that they are playing. As a result, it has been good for us. It’s been key in our wins for sure.
Ward on David Rittich’s recent performances:
I think he is seeing the puck really well. He has got himself in positions. Pucks are hitting him right now and he’s able to make the second stop. He’s been good. We are happy with the games Cam Talbot has given us in the last two as well. We are starting to see some depth at that position, too, and for us, that is real good. It allows us to back Rittich’s minutes off and that is important for us moving into the second half.
Ward on the Leafs:
They’re a real good team. You look at what they do offensively, and you have to be aware of what is going on all the time. For us, that is going to be a real good challenge for us. It doesn’t change the way we are going to approach the game. For us, we keep talking about it: It’s all about what we do. It’s all about putting our game on the ice. We need to be aware of what Toronto does, but we are not going to focus so much on Toronto that we don’t focus on ourselves. We just want to go out there and put our hockey game on the ice and see where it goes from there.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#24 Kasperi Kapanen – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#61 Nic Petan – #19 Jason Spezza – #46 Pontus Aberg
#44 Morgan Rielly – #94 Tyson Barrie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #83 Cody Ceci
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Dmytro Timashov, Frederik Gauthier, Martin Marincin
Injured: Trevor Moore, Andreas Johnsson
Matthews – Nylander – Marner
Kapanen – Petan – Spezza
Calgary Flames Projected Lines
#88 Andrew Mangiapane – #28 Elias Lindholm – #16 Tobias Reider
#29 Dillon Dube – #23 Sean Monahan – #11 Mickael Backlund
#17 Milan Lucic – #10 Derek Ryan – #13 Johnny Gaudreau
#36 Zac Rinaldo – #77 Mark Jankowski – #77 Micheal Frolik
#5 Mark Giordano – #4 Rasmus Andersson
#55 Noah Hanifin – #24 Travis Hamonic
#7 T.J Brodie – #26 Micheal Stone
#33 David Rittich (starter)
#39 Cam Talbot
Injured: Juuso Valimaki, Austin Czarnik, Sam Bennett, Matthew Tkachuk