After an ugly loss in the second game of a back-to-back in Buffalo — one Sheldon Keefe called, “the worst we have been in a very long time” — the Toronto Maple Leafs are facing a real litmus test in their home-and-home against the 36-15-6 Penguins starting tonight in Pittsburgh (7 p.m ET, SNO).
It has, on the whole, been a very inconsistent month so far for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the lead up to the NHL trade deadline next Monday. Keefe seemed short on answers after the game on Sunday: “It seems like each game has been a little bit different in terms of what the issues are.” He also mentioned the solutions the team needs to find in its depth lines and on the blue line, and as such, it was not surprising to see a shakeup in this morning’s line rushes.
Frederik Gauthier, who has been in and out of the scratches more than usual lately, looks like he will re-enter the lineup in between Pierre Engvall and Kasperi Kapanen on what appears to be the team’s third line for tonight. Gauthier’s prospects as a long-term solution higher up the lineup are pretty dim primarily due to his lack of an offensive impact — teammate relative xGF/60 production since the 2018-19 season is second last of all Leaf players at -0.49, worse than everyone outside of Nick Shore, albeit with heavy d-zone deployment. His defensive impacts — he is second-best in RelTMxGA/60 between 2018-20, behind only Par Lindholm — are likely the main part of Keefe’s thought process here in terms of searching for another line he feels he can trust defensively (without matchup control against a dangerous team) alongside Engvall and Kapanen. That said, we’ll have to see if the lines from the morning skate are the same ones in warmups.
Further changes for the Leafs will come on the blue line, as Rasmus Sandin will move up with Tyson Barrie, which should give the Swedish rookie a bit of a boost in five-on-five ice time. Martin Marincin will also draw in on the right side with Travis Dermott, which means Timothy Liljegren will sit out tonight. More than anything Liljegren did wrong, there is no doubt a penalty kill consideration at play here — the Penguins power play is fourth in xGF/60. There also appears to be a desire to mix up the pairings with the insertion of a more experienced defenseman who likely has a little bit more of Dave Hakstol’s trust defensively than Liljegren, who has been placed in the tough position of jumping into the league in limited minutes with the team in the thick of a playoff battle.
The magnitude of this test does not need much description on our end. This Penguins team is 21-5-4 on home ice, with Evgeni Malkin (19 points in his last 15) and Sidney Crosby (19 points in his last 12) healthy and rolling along in peak form at the moment. That two-headed monster — now complemented by a 30-goal winger in recent trade addition Jason Zucker — is even tougher to contain on home ice and it is going require a committed five-man effort in order to stay disciplined, limit trips to the box, and keep them playing the majority of the game inside their own zone at 5v5. Frederik Andersen is also going to need to find his form quickly tonight to give this team the confidence it needs between the pipes.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on mixing up the lines:
We hope it helps us with some matchup things and we’re hoping to find a little more consistency with our lineup there. With Gauthier and Timashov in particular, those guys have been kind of in and out and in and out. We have been trying to find the right mix of guys, and we haven’t quite found that way. Injuries play a big part in that as well, but we’ve got two games here against a very good opponent and we need to find some consistency there to help our team really get rolling.
Keefe on whether the increased minutes are tiring out his top players:
I don’t [think so]. That is why I said the other night I was a little surprised at our third period. Naturally, you’re looking at it and you’d think there would be a little bit of that, and all of a sudden, we have a surge where those guys just dominated the game. That was really good to see on a back-to-back. We are on the 18th day of February and this is our 10th game today. We’ve played a lot of hockey, but those guys have shown the ability to handle it. We’re going to need that, but we also need more support as well.
Mitch Marner on the challenge against the Penguins:
They have a lot of guys with a lot of skill, but they also work really hard. It brings it to a whole new level. That is why they are the best at what they do. We have to be ready to go as a unit.
Rasmus Sandin on joining a pairing with Tyson Barrie:
I got a couple of shifts with him the last couple of games. I think we’ve been playing well together in the shifts that we’ve got. At the same time, I think we will have some chemistry out there. I am looking forward to it.
Tyson Barrie on Rasmus Sandin:
When I was 19, I was still playing in junior hockey. It is pretty impressive what he has been able to come in and do. He doesn’t seem to ever be panicked in his game. He is composed and shows a lot of poise. He makes the right play a lot of the time. It is pretty impressive.
Auston Matthews on the challenge ahead of the team this week:
It’s an important week for us. The quality of the teams we are playing — it’ll be a good test for us to get back on track and hopefully string a couple of wins together. We’ve got these guys back-to-back and they’re a great team playing great hockey lately. It is going to be a really, really good test for us.
Keefe on getting more out of the bottom six:
We need to get more form them and I also recognize I have a role to play as well. I’ve got to trust them and I’ve got to get them opportunities to play and put them in good spots. I have a role to play and we haven’t gotten enough out of them. That is on me as a coach. I want our group to be thriving and we don’t have a lot of guys thriving down there now. Our top guys are playing extremely well, but we haven’t had the results that we’d like. I think a lot of that is that we are not rolling as a cohesive group right now. Like I said, injuries play a part, but we have 12 forwards and six defensemen playing every night and we’ve got to get everyone moving.
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 – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#73 Kyle Clifford – #19 Jason Spezza – #41 Dmytro Timashov
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#23 Travis Dermott – #52 Martin Marincin
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Scratched: Egor Korshkov, Mason Marchment
Injured: Ilya Mikheyev, Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Andreas Johnsson
Pittsburgh Penguins Projected Lines
#16 Jason Zucker – #87 Sidney Crosby – #12 Dominik Simon
#19 Jared McCann – #71 Evgeni Malkin – #17 Bryan Rust
#13 Brandon Tanev – #53 Teddy Blueger – #72 Patric Hornqvist
#24 Dominik Kahun – #26 Andrew Agozzino – #37 Sam Lafferty
#3 Jack Johnson – #58 Kris Letang
#28 Marcus Pettersson – #4 Justin Schultz
#50 Juuso Riikola – #2 Chad Ruhwedel
#30 Matt Murray
#35 Tristan Jarry
Injured: Nick Bjugstad, Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, Zach Aston-Reese