Following an eight-day layoff, the Toronto Maple Leafs should be recharged and ready for the stretch drive as they visit the Nashville Predators (8 p.m. ET, TSN4).
The Florida Panthers, now four points up on Toronto, used their games in hand this past week to overtake the Maple Leafs for third in the Atlantic Division. Florida has won their last six in a row, as has Columbus, while Philadephia and Carolina both won their games while the Leafs were on their bye.
Considering how recently the Leafs were in the conversation alongside Tampa Bay for potentially challenging Boston for the top spot in the division, it shows how quickly the playoff picture can shift with a bad week and a half. It is a highly competitive top 10 in the East at the moment. After a couple of flat performances vs. Florida and Chicago that belied the level of urgency to their current situation in the standings, the Leafs should be a highly motivated team tonight.
The biggest benefit to the week-plus layoff was the opportunity to get a mental reset and a few bodies back from injury before the Leafs‘ slump bled into anything worse. Jake Muzzin, who last played December 27th against the Devils, will return from a foot injury after playing a couple of games with the Marlies this week on a conditioning stint. Muzzin’s matchup role on a pair alongside Justin Holl was becoming a reliable asset for the Leafs before Muzzin went down, and his return should bring some badly-needed stability back to the blue line. Based on their skate yesterday, that pairing will be reunited, while Travis Dermott, previously paired with Holl, will join Tyson Barrie.
Additionally, Trevor Moore will make his return on the team’s fourth line, where he’ll be looking to give the team’s depth a shot in the arm with his up-tempo, tenacious game alongside Frederik Gauthier and Jason Spezza.
After a successful appearance in the All-Star game this past weekend, a lot of eyes will also be on Frederik Andersen as he looks to get his season back on the rails. Andersen, as is tradition, battled through an up-and-down October before settling in for the remainder of 2019. However, unlike in past seasons, Andersen hasn’t cruised through January. Over his last ten starts, he’s stopped 290 of 329 shots, good for a .881 save percentage. As important as anything tonight is that Andersen — he was pulled twice in a week vs. Edmonton and Florida and showed visible signs of frustration — shows he was able to mentally and physically reset and get himself dialed in for the stretch run.
Like the Leafs, the Predators last played on January 18th, so it’s all square in terms of the rest (and possibly rust) factor. Nashville, despite sitting last in the Central Division, is 19th in the NHL in PTS% with a 22-18-7 record, ninth in the NHL in xGF/60, and sixth at generating overall shot attempts (CF/60). Their defensive metrics also stand up well despite a high goals against total this season — they’re six in xGA/60 — but poor goaltending, dismal combined special teams, and a bad slump towards the New Year led to a coaching change in early January. The Preds lost their first game under John Hynes, but they’ve gone 3-2-0 since while controlling the run of play fairly well heading into the break.
In net, the 37-year-old Pekka Rinne will start for Nashville. He’s struggled this year in a tandem role with Juuse Saros, going 16-10-3 with a .899 Sv%, well below his career average of .918. Rinne ranks 55th of 58 goalies with 500 minutes this year in GSAx.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the team finding its identity:
We’ve had a couple of games get away from us that give you a different perspective on our team that we don’t think is necessarily reflective of where we are at. As a team, everyone has more to give here and more to offer — from the forwards, defense, to goaltending. Everyone can be better so we don’t let those types of games get away from us, but we’ve been in a lot of games here. We’ve won a lot of games as well. It’s on us to really show which team that we are.
Keefe on the Muzzin – Holl pairing:
They were just feeding off of each other very well in terms of Holl’s ability to use his skating ability to defend the neutral zone and also help us breakout. Muzz’s positioning, competitiveness, intelligence, and his experience allow him to play against good players. They really help our structure fall into place and be in good spots when they are out there.
Jake Muzzin on if he’s going to be playing through any pain coming back from injury:
No, the foot feels ready to go.
Muzzin on if he’ll play any differently recovering from injury:
No, I go out and I try to play my style of hockey. This little injury is not going to stop that.
Callup Tyler Gaudet on his experience with Sheldon Keefe:
He’s a great coach. He knows how to get the best out of every player and it has obviously shown. He’s progressed through his coaching career. He’s a great coach.
Keefe on why he called his team immature after the last game:
Just the fact that we falied to rise to that occasion. Similar to the Florida game, we talk about the importance of the game [beforehand]. It’s the last game before a break, things hadn’t been going all that well, it was a chance to finish it off the way we would like to, and we falied to do that. That’s not what you want to be about as a team. You want to rise to those occasions and you want to finish the job. The fact that we were’t able to do that was disappointing.
Keefe on the mindset going forward:
We’ve got a lot of games coming in a short amount of time here — that’s going to be a grind all that way through. We also recognize the situation we’re in [in the standings] and that’s it’s going to be a battle to the very end, likely. We’ve got to focus on every day as it comes. That starts today.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #47 Pierre Engvall – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#42 Trevor Moore – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #19 Jason Spezza
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #94 Tyson Barrie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #83 Cody Ceci
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Dmytro Timashov, Tyler Gaudet
Injured: Ilya Mikheyev, Morgan Rielly
Nashville Predators Projected Lines
#19 Calle Jarnkrok – #92 Ryan Johansen – #51 Austin Watson
#9 Filip Forsberg – #95 Matt Duchene – #864 Mikael Grandlund
#23 Rocco Grimaldi – #14 Nick Bonino – #33 Victor Arvidsson
#42 Colin Blackwell – #8 Kyle Turris – #15 Craig Smith
#59 Roman Josi – #7 Yannick Weber
#14 Mattias Ekholm – #57 Dante Fabbro
#5 Dan Hamhuis – #52 Matt Irwin
#35 Pekka Rinne (starter)
#74 Juuse Saros
Injured: Colton Sissons, Ryan Ellis