After their winning streak came to an end with an overtime loss to the Rangers, the increasingly banged-up Toronto Maple Leafs are in Minnesota for a New Year’s Eve showdown against the Wild (6 p.m. ET, Sportsnet).
The injuries continue to pile up as the Leafs hit the half-way point of the season tonight. Jake Muzzin’s injury diagnosis came out of the blue before Saturday’s game, giving the Leafs their first big injury on the back-end this season to add to their multiple absences at forward. Muzzin is a huge part of the Leafs defense core and his pairing with Justin Holl has provided the team with a capable tough-usage pairing that they’ve been searching for all season.
Speaking of Holl, for those that missed it, the 27-year-old Minnesota native signed a three-year contract extension with the club today before his first NHL game in his home state. The stopgap solution on Saturday, and to start the game tonight, will see Martin Marincin step into Muzzin’s spot next to Holl. That pairing, a regular feature for Sheldon Keefe during the Marlies‘ Calder Cup run, kept a clean sheet while controlling 67% of the shot attempts at 5v5 on Saturday, but fans could be excused for feeling less than comfortable with the state of the Leafs‘ top four at the moment sans Muzzin — and really the makeup of the entire group of six with the recent struggles of the Dermott-Ceci pairing.
Despite their reputation as a low-event, defensively-sound team in years past, Minnesota has been involved in a couple of barn-burners lately — with 8-5 and 6-4 wins coming against the Coyotes and Avalanche in the last two weeks — and they’re scoring over 3.1 goals per game (14th) while giving up 3.3 per game (27th). The Leafs are scoring the lights out under Sheldon Keefe while giving up more than their share at the other end, so this game could have the potential for some New Year’s Eve fireworks — although the Wild tend to keep things tighter on home ice, where they’re 10-3-3 this season (3.3 goals for per game, 2.74 against).
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on Justin Holl’s new three-year contract:
You’re really happy for him, of course, when you’ve been sort of a passenger on his journey here. The credit goes to him for the work he has put in through these years and for being resilient and staying positive and keeping the energy he has every day; continuing to work and waiting for his opportunity. When he got it this season, he hasn’t looked back. Really happy for him and his wife and family. It’s on him now to just keep working to continue to get better and on us to support him to keep doing so.
Keefe on Holl’s importance to the team this season:
Obviously, recently, we have increased his responsibilities both on the penalty kill and five on five in terms of giving us somebody to lean on heavily for defensive-zone situations and defensive assignments against good players. That means a lot to us and allows us to open up Tyson Barrie to play in a lot of offensive situations and has a positive trickle-down effect.
Justin Holl on his excitement about signing a new deal in Toronto:
We have such a great group — a lot of great players and a lot of great guys, and a great system. I think that is the most exciting part for me — being able to be a part of it for the next three years… The organization is such a great fit for me and we have such good players. It’s going to be exciting to be a part of.
Auston Matthews on Justin Holl:
Holler is a really popular guy on the team. He’s funny and he brings really good energy every day to the rink. He’s really taken a step this year. Obviously, he has been playing some big minutes for us and has been playing really well. I think everyone is extremely happy for him and excited he is going to stick around for a few more years.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#47 Dmytro Timashov – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #77 Adam Brooks
#44 Morgan Rielly – #94 Tyson Barrie
#52 Martin Marincin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #83 Cody Ceci
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Teemu Kivihalme
Injured: Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore, Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin
Minnesota Wild Projected Lines
#6 Ryan Donato – #12 Eric Staal – #36 Mats Zuccarello
#11 Zach Parise – #9 Mikko Koivu – #22 Kevin Fiala
#18 Jordan Greenway – #14 Joel Eriksson-Ek – #19 Luke Kunin
#17 Marcus Foligno – #49 Victor Rask – #38 Ryan Hartman
#20 Ryan Suter – #46 Jared Spurgeon
#25 Jonas Brodin – #21 Carson Soucy
#77 Brad Hunt – #24 Matthew Dumba
#40 Devan Dubnyk (starter)
#32 Alex Stalock
Injured: Jason Zucker, Greg Pateryn