The Maple Leafs, dealing with unending injuries and significant adversity in the form of three blowout losses in four games, won two huge divisional matchups with impressive performances in Tampa Bay and Sunrise, Florida this past week. Tonight, they look to make it three straight wins against the 34-23-6 Vancouver Canucks (7 p.m. ET, CBC).
After an overtime win coming out of the All-Star break, the Canucks dropped four in a row, giving up 18 goals in the process. Since that dip, they’ve gone 4-2-1 and sit second in the NHL in xGF/60 and 21st in xGA/60. With a 9-3 win against Boston just a week ago and a 5-2 loss to Ottawa on Thursday, there’s an element of unpredictability with the Canucks at the moment that will sound pretty familiar to Leafs fans.
— Jeff Paterson (@patersonjeff) February 29, 2020
Also similar to the Leafs, injuries are factoring in for Vancouver down the stretch — Jakob Markstrom, Brock Boeser, Josh Leivo, and Micheal Ferland are all out of the lineup currently. With Markstrom recently undergoing minor surgery, 24-year-old Thatcher Demko will make just his 30th career NHL start tonight (11-7-2, .903 save percentage).
There will be a few changes coming for the Leafs after their win in Florida, including a return to 12 forwards and six defense after an 11/7 approach on Thursday. Timothy Liljegren, the Leafs‘ #7 in Florida, will sit out tonight, leaving a bottom pair of Martin Marincin – Calle Rosen.
Up fornt, Alex Kerfoot’s place in the lineup continues to rotate under Sheldon Keefe. The coach clearly likes the player, but figuring out whether he best fits — either centering his own line or playing wing on John Tavares’s line — seems to be an ongoing evaluation process. Denis Malgin played a couple of games next to Tavares before sitting out against the Panthers, so Keefe appears to be turning back to Kerfoot as the better complement to the Tavares/Nylander combo. Malgin, meanwhile, will play on the fourth line tonight next to Frederik Gauthier.
Part of Keefe’s comfort with moving Kerfoot back to Tavares’ wing may have to do with Jason Spezza’s recent play, as the veteran forward will move up into a third-line center role in between Kyle Clifford and Kasperi Kapanen. The 36-year-old has assists in his last two games and his underlying numbers suggest he’s coming on strong down the stretch. Here is how his five-game rolling average xGF charts courtesy of chartinghockey.ca:
Game Day Quotes
Alex Kerfoot on the wins against TB and FLA:
That was a huge response road trip for us. Coming off that Carolina game, obviously that was an embarrassing moment for us but to go in there and play against two really good teams in difficult arenas to play in, I thought that showed a lot of character out of our group. We just want to continue that momentum going forward.
Kasperi Kapanen on his recent fights:
I’m not going to sit here and talk to you guys about how to fight. It’s not my area of expertise. I think it’s in human nature to try and do everything you can to not get hit and try and hit the other guy.
John Tavares on the Canucks pre-scout:
Yeah, we looked at couple things today and tried to prepare ourselves as best we can. No question that they compete hard and fight hard, all their centremen dig in each and every draw and make it difficult on you. They do a good job as a group, their wingers and defensemen help out quite a bit which is such a big part of it. A lot of faceoffs that are basically tied become puck battles — no question it’s a big part of the game and something we want to be good in.
Sheldon Keefe on the efforts in Tampa Bay and Sunrise:
We need to be able to play with that level of urgency. I feel like when we do that, good things follow. The other night, we’re down 3-1 and nothing is really going our way, but we stayed with it. I thought we dug in even further and worked even harder rather than folding and getting down on ourselves. That was a really good sign.
Keefe on putting Kerfoot back with Tavares:
I just felt we needed to get a little bit more consistency with [Tavares’ line]. I put that line under some real duress having eleven forwards and moving things around — I don’t know how many line combinations I had the other night. I really liked the plan going into that game and I liked how it worked for us through the game. Florida, generally, is a pretty heavy matchup team and I think when we have as much fluctuation in the lineup with 11 forwards as we do, it makes it real challenging for the opposition. But it’s real taxing on the players and it’s real taxing on the coach, too, because you make a lot more decisions than you need to in a regular game.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#73 Kyle Clifford – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#47 Pierre Engvall – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #62 Denis Malgin
#23 Travis Dermott – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#52 Martin Marincin – #48 Calle Rosen
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Scratched: Timothy Liljegren
Injured: Ilya Mikheyev, Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Andreas Johnsson, Jake Muzzin
Vancouver Canucks Projected Lines
#70 Tanner Pearson – #53 Bo Horvat – #21 Loui Eriksson
#9 J.T Miller – #40 Elias Pettersson – #73 Tyler Toffoli
#26 Antoine Roussel – #88 Adam Gaudette – #18 Jake Virtanen
#64 Tyler Motte – #83 Jay Beagle – #20 Brandon Sutter
#23 Alex Edler – #51 Troy Stecher
#43 Quinn Hughes – 8 Chris Tanev
#5 Oscar Fantenberg – #57 Tyler Myers
#35 Thatcher Demko (starter)
#30 Louis Domingue
Injured: Jakob Markstrom, Brock Boeser, Josh Leivo, Micheal Ferland, Tyler Grovac