An exhibition hockey game has never been more hotly anticipated than this.
139 days removed from the last NHL game, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens will tune-up prior to their weekend playoff series openers against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively, in a fan-less environment at the Scotiabank Arena. The game can be viewed on Sportsnet or NHL Network at 8 p.m. ET (7:30 p.m. pregame show).
In addition to getting our first taste of NHL hockey inside the bubble and all of the strangeness that comes with it, the quality of the hockey tonight is going to be an intriguing storyline in and of itself. With the series openers coming up this weekend, the motivation to avoid injury is seemingly as high or higher than the average exhibition game. At the same time, there is an urgency to the fact these 60 minutes of competitive action versus a real opponent are the teams’ only opportunity to find their game rhythm/competitiveness/conditioning while dialing into their structure before both sides jump right into the deep end of high-stakes postseason action. Unlike the average exhibition game, the two teams will also be icing their full playoff lineups.
24th in the league (31-31-9) and losers of three straight prior to the pause, tonight’s opponent in Montreal is the most fortunate franchise to still be in with a shot at the Stanley Cup thanks to the league’s makeshift 24-team playoff format. That said, in addition to the total unpredictability born out of the circumstances surrounding the tournament, any team with Carey Price in net — healthy and able to steal a game that could totally turn a series in a best-of-five sprint — can’t be written off by any means.
For the Leafs, there has been a lot of talk out of camp about relishing this opportunity to reset and rewrite the narrative of the 2020-21 season, one that was ridden with highs and lows and ultimately characterized by underachievement, if we go by points percentage relative to the team’s recent regular-season history and perceived talent level. Sheldon Keefe has been full of positivity when it comes to the team’s engagement level, conditioning, and receptiveness to the coaching staff’s messaging through Phase 2 and Phase 3, the latter of which served as Keefe’s first defacto training camp in charge of the team. The vibes have been good overall, but as Kyle Dubas put it yesterday, “We have a lot to prove.”
Storylines to Watch
– The story that will occupy the most attention in the intermission segments and pre and post-game shows: OHL scoring phenom Nick Robertson‘s readiness for NHL prime time. He wouldn’t be in a position to slot in on the left wing of the team’s third line right now — bumping Pierre Engvall to fourth-line center and Frederik Gauthier to 13th forward — if the coaching staff didn’t think he was a serious option to start in the playoff lineup. However, he’s got to look like he belongs tonight, or the coaching staff may go with a more familiar, NHL-proven option for Game 1.
The team will dress 13 forwards tonight and if Robertson struggles early, Keefe will likely want to get Engvall some game reps on the Kerfoot and Kapanen line. It’s all in front of Robertson here, though; Keefe clearly likes the idea of a tenacious, up-tempo third unit in behind the big two lines — one that packs a scoring punch — with Robertson next to Kapanen and Kerfoot. But Robertson has to show signs he’s ready to seize the moment amid the elevated pace, limited time and space, and physical rigors of an NHL game if he’s going to enter rarified air as an 18-year-old who makes his NHL debut in the playoffs.
– After a torrent start under new coach Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs‘ power play was struggling prior to the break, falling into stale patterns and looking pretty predictable and game-plannable. Said half-wall QB Mitch Marner before the pause: “Teams are playing us now knowing Matts is the only real shooter up high.” If it doesn’t start hot, I’d like to see some creativity and new wrinkles — i.e. running it behind the net through Marner or Tavares down low, and Nylander and Matthews on opposite half walls to balance out the shooting threats. Regardless, the reset and camp repetitions should have given the team some opportunities to get their feels and creative juices flowing again.
The thing to keep in mind about the Columbus Blue Jackets: They play hard but disciplined. Given their physical reputation, it might surprise you to learn they were one of only two teams to accumulate fewer total penalty minutes than the Leafs, and they took the fewest minor penalties of any club this season. Knowing that the whistles go away in the playoffs and also the Leafs‘ chronic inability to draw penalties in general, the man-advantage minutes might be limited and the Leafs will need to take advantage when the opportunities do arise. The power play simply has to be an ace in the hole in the playoffs for a team with the Leafs’ roster construction and team identity.
– How does Frederik Andersen look? While Sheldon Keefe spent a good chunk of camp focusing on defensive details, the Leafs’ defensive flaws mean they typically go as far as Freddy can take them. While he put together a good start against Tampa Bay as well as a shutout performance in LA shortly before the pause, Andersen looked like he needed the reset if we take a look at his 2020 as a whole (.899 save percentage). He’s been criticized for his slow starts to seasons in the past, and easing into the playoffs is not an option this summer. With mediocre series against the Bruins in his recent history, Andersen definitely has something to prove this playoff.
– What’s a fully healthy Leafs defense look like? This game on its own won’t be a fair indication either way, but this is the first time ever that we’ve seen all of Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl, Travis Dermott, Tyson Barrie, and Cody Ceci healthy and ready to go as a unit. Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas’ emphasis on the team’s mindset toward five-man defense is warranted and really important for the Leafs’ forwards to grasp and embrace, but a healthy defense on its own should be a major help if the units can gel again quickly.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#88 William Nylander – #34 Auston Matthews – #11 Zach Hyman
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#73 Kyle Clifford – #47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza
13th forward: #33 Frederik Gauthier
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#23 Travis Dermott – #94 Tyson Barrie
7th defenseman: #52 Martin Marincin
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Scratched: Rasmus Sandin, Calle Rosen, Timothy Liljegren, Kasimir Kaskisuo, Joseph Woll
Injured: Andreas Johnsson
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
Tatar – Danault-Gallagher
Drouin – Suzuki – Armia
Byron – Kotkaniemi – Lehkonen
Chiarot – Weber
Kulak – Petry