After another big win that puts them just six points behind Boston in the Atlantic, the red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs welcome Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers to Scotiabank Arena tonight (7 p.m. ET, TSN4).
While their record has improved since the last Leafs-Oilers meeting on December 14th, Edmonton has continued to trend downwards as a team while still remaining just one point out of a playoff spot in a weak Pacific Division. They’re 4-4-1 since that game — a points pace they’d need some luck with in order to get into the playoffs — and their already poor 5-on-5 numbers have continued along the same bleak trend.
However, the Oilers did pick up a crucial win in Boston on Saturday after a great performance from Mike Smith. Their 4-1 victory was just the Bruins second regulation loss at home this season. In the brief absence of Mikko Koskinen, who has acted as the 1A in the Oilers 1A/1B goaltending scenario, Smith has needed to step up and his 35-save performance was a good start. He had lost six starts in a row before Saturday’s win (0-5-2), so it will take some time before Smith wins back the confidence he earned with his early-season success.
The only change for the Leafs tonight over the last game will be inserting Adam Brooks back in for Dmytro Timashov. Keefe has seemed keen on giving recent callups a string of games in the lineup rather than cycling them in and out with the scratches. Timashov has seen 30 games already this year and it’s likely the coaching staff would rather see what they have in other players right now, especially considering Keefe’s fourth line is only getting between 6-8 minutes on many nights.
The Leafs‘ trajectory lately has been truly extraordinary. Now 15-4-1 under Sheldon Keefe, they’re also third in the NHL in GF% and 7th in xGF%. There are things to work through — they took a while to adjust to the Islanders’ forecheck and neutral zone defense, and execute offensively against them — but the team has adopted a structure that has them executing extremely well offensively and playing a little more organized and fast defensively. With almost four months of hockey left, there will most certainly be dips to come, but the Leafs have gone from playoff question mark to possible division champions in about a month’s time. Another regulation win tonight would be their 9th in 11 games and would extend their point streak to ten games.
Game Day Quotes
Auston Matthews on the team’s improvement in third periods lately:
Absolutely, that’s something in our first year we struggled with and at times this year. I think now we’re figuring out how to play — especially in those games where we’re up a couple of goals or up a goal — and making sure that we’re taking care of the puck and not being to fancy with it and turning it over. We’re making sure that we’re trying to play in their zone and keep it their zone as much as possible.
John Tavares on handling Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Oilers’ offense:
Obviously, being smart with the puck and being good in the neutral zone, not giving them the time and space to generate speed and use their playmaking ability. Also, I think we can stay out of the box. They have a good power play. They’ve got some very talented players and some good shooters as well. You really want them to have to earn every opportunity they get, so we need to do the best job we can to protect the middle of the ice.
Sheldon Keefe on what he takes away from the team’s winning streak:
Like you said, it’s been all different types of games, so I guess if there’s a common thread it’s that we’ve stayed with it and stayed confident in our group and what we’re doing. We’ve adjusted and responded well at key times. That’s been a big part of it. Obviously, it’s a confident group right now.
Keefe on the Marcincin-Holl pair:
Yeah, we’ve been happy with them for sure. Obviously, Holl’s been good for quite some time here now. Losing Muzzin is tough for us of course, but we wanted to see how Marincin would do with a little more consistency in his opportunity. The team is in a different place now, so we wanted to put him in there and see how he would do, and I think he’s done very well. Of course, it’s going to be a bigger challenge here today, but I believe in Marty and his abilities. He’s helped us on the penalty kill as well. That’s one area he’s really been able to fill in for Muzzin there. At 5-on-5, we’ve seen some really good things with his gap control and defending the neutral zone.
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
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Dmytro Timashov
Injured: Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore, Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin
Edmonton Oilers Projected Lines
#18 James Neal – #97 Connor McDavid – #44 Zach Kassian
#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – #29 Leon Draisaitl – #56 Kailer Yamamoto
#10 Joakim Nygard – #91 Gaetan Haas – #39 Alex Chiasson
#16 Jujhar Khaira – #23 Riley Sheahan – #15 Josh Archibald
#77 Oskar Klefbom – #6 Adam Larsson
#25 Darnell Nurse – #74 Ethan Bear
#82 Caleb Jones – #4 Kris Russell
#41 Mike Smith (starter)
#19 Mikko Koskinen