Now back at home looking to put a very disappointing road trip behind them, the Maple Leafs welcome back Morgan Rielly against their first-round opponent if the season ended today, the Tampa Bay Lightning (7 p.m. ET, TSN4).
It’s getting to that point in the season again where the focus on first-round matchups becomes a daily talking point. After earning just one point in three games in California, the Panthers sit one point back with the same number of games played. Being overtaken by Florida would put the Leafs in a race with the Hurricanes and Islanders for the second wildcard spot, which would almost surely mean a third straight playoff matchup with the Bruins if the Leafs squeaked in. As of today, the Leafs would walk into either probable first round matchup as the underdogs, but there is still a fair amount of hockey to be played.
As of today, per moneypuck.com, the Leafs have approximately a 66% chance at finishing third in the Atlantic, their current position, while they have merely a 5.1% chance at that second wildcard spot. If you’re wondering why the chances of the Leafs dropping out of the top three in their division are so low despite being only one point up, it’s primarily because of the Panthers’ poor underlying numbers, which lowers their rating in a predictive model.
Owning the same record as Toronto their last ten games (4-5-1), the Lightning certainly haven’t been playing at the same level they were coming out of the All-Star break. Losing Steven Stamkos, who needed surgery on a core muscle and will be out for at least another month, didn’t help, and now Victor Hedman won’t play tonight after missing for Sunday’s loss against Detroit. Those losses, in addition to Ryan McDonagh missing time, as well as some inconsistent goaltending from backup Curtis McElhinney have been major blows to Tampa’s chances at catching Boston for the divisional title.
Thankfully for the Lightning, Andrei Vasilevskiy will start tonight. He is 35-13-3 on the season with a .917 Sv% (.892 in his last ten games) and has a GSAx of -9.9, which puts him 53rd of 67 goalies with 300+ minutes this season. Back in net for the Leafs will be Frederik Andersen, who has a comparatively poor GSAx output at -11.8, which sits 58th out of 67 goalies.
A second win over Tampa in the span of two weeks in the first game back for the team’s number-one defenseman and a key part of the team’s leadership core would be a great way to turn the page after the dismal Cali road trip. With a tough string of opponents on the docket this week and the Panthers breathing down their necks, we’ll see if urgency finally sets in for this mercurial Leafs team, for whom it’s getting late early in terms of their ability to hit their stride before the playoffs.
Game Day Quotes
Zach Hyman on the importance of special teams vs. TB:
Yeah, the special teams battle will be huge. It was huge last time we played them in Tampa. PK is going to have to be good. You’re not nessesarily trying to score goals or anything, but if you can get an opportunity and get a shorthanded chance or goal that can definitely swing the momentum for sure.
Hyman on the Panthers being right on the Leafs’ heels:
I think we play them one more time, so that’s definitely going to be a huge game. Like I said, there’s still thirteen games left, so we just have to worry about oursleves, not about Florida or any other team. It’s not just about getting in the playoffs; it’s about being a force in the playoffs. In order to do that, we really have to get back to being a consistent team and doing the things that we are successful with night in and night out. That’s obviously been a challenge for us but we’re working on it.
Morgan Rielly on his return and the how tough it is to come back in the midst of a playoff push:
It’ll take a little bit of time. You work hard during the time you’re trying to come back to make sure you make the transition as easy as it can be, but I think that, regardless, it’s going to take some time to get back up to speed. Especially this time of year when teams are gearing up for the playoffs, the game picks up a little bit.
Just the timing of things. Actually handling the puck in practice the last couple of days, there have been times where you’re not as comfortable as you’d like to be with the puck just because you haven’t had it on your stick as much. It just takes a little bit of time. That being said, the difference between the first period and the third period will be there for me.
Sheldon Keefe on Rielly’s return:
Well, he brings a lot in all three zones. His ability to skate the puck out of our own zone, get us through the neutral zone and the way he moves around the offensive zone with and without the puck opens up a lot of things, not only for himself but others as well. Of course, he hasn’t played in quite some time so it’s important for us to be patient and give him time reacclimate and get back into game speed.
Keefe on putting Rielly-Ceci back together:
There’s some familiarity there. Obviously, with Muzzin still being out, we’ve got a little bit of uncertainty with our pairs in terms of what we’d like to do, and just the fact that Dermott and Holl have been doing well together, we wanted to give that a go.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#24 Kasperi Kapanen – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #62 Denis Malgin
#73 Kyle Clifford – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #19 Jason Spezza
#23 Travis Dermott – #3 Justin Holl
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Calle Rosen
Injured: Ilya Mikheyev, Andreas Johnsson, Jake Muzzin
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
#17 Alex Killorn – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#18 Ondrej Palat – #21 Brayden Point – #20 Blake Coleman
#67 Mitchell Stephens – #9 Tyler Johnson – #37 Yanni Gourde
#14 Patrick Maroon – #13 Cedric Paquette – #19 Barclay Goodrow
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #81 Erik Cernak
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #22 Kevin Shattenkirk
#55 Braydon Coburn – #24 Zach Bogosian
#88 Andrei Vasilevskiy (starter)
#35 Curtis McElhinney
Injured: Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Jan Rutta