With 10 wins in their last 12 games dating back to December 7, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a chance to narrow Boston’s lead in the Atlantic Division to six points as they host the New York Islanders tonight on HNIC (7 p.m. ET, CBC).
There are some parallels between the Leafs‘ previous opponent, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Islanders in how both sacrifice something in puck possession in an attempt to limit the overall number of quality chances against.
The big difference is the Islanders have executed much better and arguably have more fitting personnel for that style of play, especially on defense. New York’s overall shot rates, unsurprisingly, aren’t great — they’re 27th and 30th in shot attempts for and against, respectively. As is the intention of their system, they check out much better defensively when you adjust for shot threat/location — they’re still 27th in xGF/60, but improve to 18th in xGA/60. Considered a regression candidate by many this season, the Islanders are humming along again this year at 25-11-8 despite a change in goal from Robin Lehner/Thomas Greiss to Semyon Varlamov/Thomas Greiss; setting up goaltenders for success is clearly a feature of Barry Trotz’s systems and structure.
Expect the Islanders to look to establish a physical forecheck against the Leafs, whose gameplan is going to be similar to when the Wild set out to take a similar approach last week (in the words of Bruce Boudreau, to “play physical against a non-physical team”): own the puck and zone time battle to the point where it takes the sting out of their forecheck by forcing more dumping and changing, preventing the Isles from generating sustained momentum by getting on top of you with their forecheck.
The decision to start Michael Hutchinson tonight is going to be the main talking point heading into the game considering the strength of the opponent and the fact that this is not a back-to-back scenario. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself if you’re the Leafs, but their current trajectory under Sheldon Keefe has them in a position where they will likely be comfortably situated in a playoff position as we move into the latter part of the season. It will be key for the coaching staff to identify opportunities to keep Hutchinson engaged that are timed in such a way that Frederik Andersen can get meaningful rest and recovery in preparation for, hopefully, a long playoff run. The Leafs don’t play any back-to-backs in January, so if the team is going to get serious about Andersen’s load management (i.e. keeping it south of 65 games, at a minimum), it is going to require some starts for Hutchinson in rested situations.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be some questions asked as to why it’s the Islanders tonight instead of the Oilers on Monday for Hutchinson, but there might be something to be said for no longer hiding him from decent opposition. They’re going to need him to take some starts against good teams in the second half of the year, so they may as well see how this goes now. Maybe Hutchinson is inspired by the show of confidence from Keefe.
In net for the Islanders is Semyon Varlamov, who has taken the 1A role from last year’s Vezina runner-up Robin Lehner quite well. He’s gone 14-4-3, with a .921 save percentage and a league ninth-best GSAx of 4.6.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the decision to start Michael Hutchinson tonight:
We are well aware of the fact that we have to get more games out of our backup. We just thought today, coming back from the road and looking at it, we felt that if we didn’t get Freddy a rest this week, there probably wouldn’t be one until after the break.
With that in mind, it would be a long time between starts for Hutchinson. We just thought that today made some sense to get him in there.
Keefe on managing the lineup through the high-scoring winning streak:
There’s been a lot tactically we’ve discussed offensively that we’ve tried to change. I think we’re starting to see more of that — at the same time, a lot of what we’re doing is trying to put the good players in positions to succeed. They’ve done well with that. Whether that’s tactical pieces or ice time or situations we’re trying to put them in 5-on-5 and on the PP, we’re just trying to have the right people out there and give them a chance. When those guys have opportunities, they tend to make good on it more often than not. Right now, they’re feeling it.
Tyson Barrie on game-planning against the Islanders:
They’re obviously a very hard working team and they pride themselves on defense and a hard forecheck. That’s kind of where they create their offense. We’ll have to make sure to have good [zone] exits against them and not give them any easy pucks.
Barrie on the tactical changes under Keefe:
Just the way that we try to hold onto the puck. We really value having the puck and we realize that when we do, they’re not going to be able to score. If you watch the way we play in the o-zone, it’s more of a five-man unit. The D are getting active and forwards covering. It’s much more of a puck-possession style.
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
#37 Mason Marchment – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #77 Adam Brooks
#44 Morgan Rielly – #94 Tyson Barrie
#52 Martin Marincin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #83 Cody Ceci
#30 Michael Hutchinson (starter)
#31 Frederik Andersen
Scratched: Dmytro Timashov
Injured: Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore, Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin
New York Islanders Projected Lines
#27 Anders Lee – #13 Matthew Barzal – #14 Tom Kuhnhackl
#18 Anthony Beauvillier – #29 Brock Nelson – #10 Derick Brassard
#32 Ross Johnston – #12 Josh Bailey – #7 Jordan Eberle
#17 Matt Martin – #53 Casey Cizikas – #47 Leo Komarov
#2 Nick Leddy – #55 Johnny Boychuk
#6 Ryan Pulock – #48 Noah Dobson
#25 Devon Toews – #24 Scott Mayfield
#40 Semyon Varlamov (starter)
#1 Thomas Greiss
Injured: Adam Pelech