The Toronto Maple Leafs will kick off what should be a four-point weekend with the first of two highly-winnable matchups against the Senators tonight in Ottawa (7 p.m. ET, CBC).
It has been a while since there was serious talk about a backup stealing starts from Frederik Andersen, but there is a growing chorus of fans asking the question with Andersen’s recent form and rustiness coming off of injury (vs. Dallas), in addition to Jack Campbell’s excellent start to his Leaf tenure. There is no getting around the fact that the Leafs are going to need Andersen to be at his best down the stretch, but a little bit of healthy competition could go a long way with a busy schedule coming up (five games in eight days). Tonight, Campbell will get a chance to build on his 2-0-1 start (.918 save percentage) against a low-scoring Senators team before Andersen takes back the crease tomorrow night in Buffalo.
Outside of the crease, with Andreas Johnsson now out with a knee injury that will require surgery, both Frederik Gauthier and Dmytro Timashov will return to the lineup on the fourth line with Kyle Clifford, while Pierre Engvall will move up onto the left side of Jason Spezza’s line. After a couple of non-descript games on the fourth line, Pontus Aberg has been returned to the Marlies, who should benefit from the return of their leading scorer as they finally start to string together some much-needed wins (three in a row).
The challenge for the Leafs this weekend: For the Sabres and Senators, with playoffs basically out of the question, these rivalry games on home ice are some of the only games on the schedule still worth getting up for. That has certainly been the case for a Senators team that has not been an easy out for the Leafs this season despite the two Toronto wins. This is also another money-on-the-board game for the likes of DJ Smith, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, and Tyler Ennis.
Two Saturdays ago, the Senators filed a committed defensive effort that turned the matchup into a one-shot game settled by a Mitch Marner overtime goal on the power play. The Senators don’t have the talent of the Dallas Stars, but the gameplan will be quite similar in terms of playing a cagey style and jamming the Leafs up through neutral ice while looking to pounce on mistakes should the Leafs force plays in bad areas of the ice or overextend themselves offensively. If the offense doesn’t come early for the Leafs tonight, patience will be key.
It’s all the more important that the Leafs take care of business this weekend knowing the difficulty of the schedule coming up: After Buffalo tomorrow night, the Leafs play the Penguins twice, the Hurricanes, the Lightning, the Panthers, and the Canucks to close out February.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on playing good neutral zone teams like Dallas and Ottawa:
Yeah, we think it’s less about managing the puck than it is about getting through the neutral zone quickly. It’s the balance of having the puck a lot, which we certainly did the other night against Dallas. We probably had it more than we did any other game. As a result, we didn’t have to defend much at all, nineteen shots and not many chances against. The game tonight will be similar, we’ll have a lot of opportunities to have the puck and we want to make sure we find our ways to get through the neutral zone and ultimately to the net.
Keefe on the Sens’ defensive play:
For them, it’s all about their structure. Putting the puck in, a lot of times allows us to get that structure and then they’re going to wait for you to make a mistake to try and generate their offense that way. We played against Ottawa not too long ago on home ice and that was a tough game for us. They played very hard. You can tell the Ottawa-Toronto games — be it the battle of Ontario, be it the number of former Leafs that are on the team or just D.J [Smith] himself — the game means a lot to Ottawa. We’ve got to make sure it means a lot to us because it certainly does for all the same reasons in addition to the fact we’re in a battle here, as we all know, right to the very end.
Keefe on the Leafs’ play at home vs. on the road:
I can’t put my finger on that. We have certainly played better on the road — I’m not sure if something where we’ve played significantly better on the road or just that we play worse at home. We’re trying to sort through that but, obviously, we are on the road here for the next three and, starting with tonight, we want to try to take care of it and figure out the home thing when we get back there.
Keefe on sending Aberg down and inserting Gauthier and Timashov into the lineup:
Yeah, we’re okay for today. The Marlies aren’t too far away from where we’ll be in Buffalo tomorrow. We want to kind of see how things go with this group. We don’t want to disrupt the Marlies if we don’t need to — they’ve really found some traction there and the fellas are playing well. If we feel like we’re going to make a change or make a lineup decision or if we have an injury and we need somebody, obviously we’ll make a change then. but for now, we like the guys that we have.
Keefe on starting Campbell today and Andersen tomorrow:
We thought, given Freddy was coming off the injury and everything, it just gives him an extra day here. We haven’t practiced much as a team so, coming off the game [Thursday], it was a day off yesterday. We want him to get ready for a game rather than going right into it — it just made more sense. It’s also less time off for Jack — he found some real consistency playing three games for us, so getting back in today was better.
John Tavares on facing trap-happy defensive teams:
Yeah, I think the two games at home this week, leading into this one, we’re all kind of similar — things we’re facing and things the opponent likes to do. We’ve got to be well prepared and be patient and find ways to break down their structure to find ways to get access to the middle of the ice.
Tavares on the Leafs’ play at home vs. on the road:
I’m not sure. On the road. a lot of times it allows you to simplify things a little bit and gets you into a good frame of mind. Sometimes, when you’re at home, there’s a lot more going on. We just want to continue to build on that success and have a good mindset.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#88 William Nylander – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #11 Zach Hyman
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#73 Kyle Clifford – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #41 Dmytro Timashov
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #94 Tyson Barrie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#31 Frederik Andersen
Scratched: Martin Marincin
Injured: Ilya Mikheyev, Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci
Ottawa Senators Projected Lines
#8 Brady Tkachuk – #44 Jean-Gabriel Pageau – #28 Connor Brown
#90 Vladislav Namestnikov – #71 Chris Tierney – #19 Drake Batherson
#13 Nick Paul – #51 Artem Anisimov – #10 Anthony Duclair
#63 Tyler Ennis – #36 Colin White – #49 Scott Sabourin
#72 Thomas Chabot – #2 Dylan DeMelo
#5 Mike Reilly – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#81 Ron Hainsey – #29 Cody Goloubef
#35 Marcus Hogberg
#41 Craig Anderson
Injured: Anders Nilsson, Christian Wolanin