It hasn’t been the ideal start to February, as the Toronto Maple Leafs have gone 3-2-1, with all three wins coming in extra time. Tonight, after eking out a win in OT against the Coyotes on Tuesday, the Leafs will look for their second win of the season against the Dallas Stars, who happen to be the last team they beat in regulation back on January 29 (7 p.m. ET, SNO).
On Tuesday, the Leafs looked like they weren’t near 100%, even among those dressed in the lineup. Both Justin Holl and John Tavares missed practice due to illness on Monday, while Zach Hyman was dealing with a minor lower-body injury. Absences and illnesses aren’t an excuse — most teams are in a similar boat, especially at this time of year — but it does perhaps provide some context as to why the team has needed to scratch and claw for results of late.
It doesn’t appear there will be any changes from the lineup that took on Arizona on Tuesday. Neither of the Leafs‘ extra forwards, Dmytro Timashov and Frederik Gauthier, appear to be dealing with injury or illness, but Marlies leading scorer Pontus Aberg will remain in the lineup tonight regardless, as it looks like Sheldon Keefe will give both the Clifford – Engvall – Aberg and the Nylander – Matthews – Marner lines more of a look despite nondescript games against the Coyotes on Tuesday.
Keefe has shown in his short time as head coach of the Leafs that he likes to experiment with the different possibilities by turning over every possible stone with this lineup, but he also hasn’t been a reactionary in the sense that he likes to give his new line combinations some runway to show what might be possible in a reasonable sample size — a particularly worthwhile exercise when it comes to a line as skilled and potentially explosive as Nylander – Matthews – Marner.
The biggest lineup news is the return of Frederik Andersen to the crease. Andersen has been out since he left mid-game against Florida on February 3rd following a collision that resulted in a neck injury. Tuesday looked like the game earmarked for his return, but the team kept him out an extra game as a precaution, helped by the trust in newcomer Jack Campbell to give the team every chance to win. While there may be some concerns about rust going into tonight, Andersen has had the benefit of a few practices to get up to speed.
For the time being, the Stars are plugging away in a safe position at third place in the Central Division. They’re six points up on the next closest threat, the Winnipeg Jets, with two games in hand and only three points back of the second-place Avalanche. They’ve gone 5-2-1 since their post-All-Star break while enjoying an uptick in their underlying numbers. In their eight games prior to the break, Dallas averaged an xGF/60 rate that ranked 26th in the league and an xGA/60 rate that ranked ninth; since then, they rank eighth in both categories. Clearly, they needed the reset, as they have moved much closer to their early-season numbers as of late.
While the Stars are in good form, they did take a big blow today when they placed Alexander Radulov on the injured reserve. The 33-year-old will join Justin Dowling, who’s also on the IR, while veteran Joe Pavelski remains sidelined short term.
Game Day Quotes
Frederik Andersen on his relationship with Andrew Cogliano, who will play in his 1,000th game tonight:
The ultimate professional. I know that gets thrown around a lot, but I don’t think I’ve met anyone that fits it better than him. There’s just a passion for the game. He lives and breathes it. Just the ultimate team players as well — he doesn’t care how many points he gets or anything like that. He’s out there do his job, whatever his role is on a given night.
Auston Matthews on his new line and Sheldon Keefe’s willingness to change things up:
We’ve never really played together 5-on-5, so it’s a bit of an adjustment. It’ll be interesting to see, the more games and reps we have together, how well that can mesh. I guess you never really know until you try it.
He’s not afraid to switch up the lines. Especially after we were on the penalty kill, I get to go play with JT and [Nylander] or JT and Mitch and kind of mix it up like that because certain guys penalty kill and certain guys don’t. Just making sure you’re getting on the ice and getting action, he makes sure that you’re in it and feeling good about yourself. I think that’s really important.
Sheldon Keefe on the Nylander-Matthews-Marner line:
I think, from our perspective, we wanted to give a little bit of time for that group to grow together. Like I said the other night, I didn’t think it was fair to judge the line just because I didn’t think that we had a very strong game. Willy coming off his injury hadn’t skated and they hadn’t had much time together, so we wanted to give it a little bit of a bigger sample.
Keefe on the recently-extended Pierre Engvall’s successful transition to the NHL:
First of all, physically he’s very strong, as strong as anyone in the game. The size and the strength that he has, the power that he has, the speed that he has — all those tools he can use to skate with anybody and play with anybody in the NHL. Then, he has a skillset, too, that goes with that, so he’s confident when he has the puck because he believes he can outskate people and he can hang onto the puck.
Just the background that he has playing in Sweden and European hockey, he liked to hold onto the puck. It’s a physical package that allows him to do a lot of things. That’s why he was able to come in right out of playing in Sweden to join the Marlies in our Calder Cup run — we put him in a role and he did very well with it. As he’s grown his game defensively, we’ve just got a real nice player there that’s good at a lot of things.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#88 William Nylander – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #11 Zach Hyman
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#73 Kyle Clifford – #47 Pierre Engvall – #46 Pontus Aberg
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #94 Tyson Barrie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Dmytro Timashov, Frederik Gauthier
Injured: Ilya Mikheyev, Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci
Dallas Stars Projected Lines
#24 Roope Hintz – #91 Tyler Seguin – #10 Corey Perry
#14 Jamie Benn – #18 Jason Dickinson – #34 Denis Gurianov
#11 Andrew Cogliano – #12 Radek Faksa – #15 Blake Comeau
#25 Joel Kiviranta – #13 Mattias Janmark – #52 Jason Robertson
#23 Esa Lindell – #3 John Klingberg
#4 Miro Heiskanen – #28 Stephen Johns
#2 Jamie Oleksiak – #45 Roman Polak
#30 Ben Bishop (starter)
#35 Anton Khudobin
Injured: Alexander Radulov, Justin Dowling, Joe Pavelski