Fresh off of a much-needed four-day break from game action, including two full practice days, the Maple Leafs will kick off a three-game series against Vancouver tonight in Toronto (7 p.m. EST, TSN4 / Sportsnet Pacific).

Evaluation is difficult with the compact all-division schedule, and extra difficult for a Canucks team that played 13 games in the first 22 days, eight of which came against either Ottawa (x3) or Montreal (x5). They blew out Ottawa for three straight wins and lost four out of five to the Habs while conceding a stunning 28 goals, with Montreal’s Tyler Toffoli scoring eight of those goals in his five revenge tours.

What can be safely said about the Canucks’ 6-7-0 start is that they’ve been a tire fire defensively, and their overtaxed goalies in Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko are not saving the day so far. Ruing sloppy turnovers and coverage breakdowns, Elias Pettersson provided the funny and damning soundbite the other night, “We don’t make the simple plays good.”

Remove their cumulative 16-3 rout of the Senators over their three-game series, Vancouver’s goal difference is -16 in the other 10 games. Outside of one win against Edmonton and one against Winnipeg, they have largely been really subpar against competent competition this season, including a cumulative 8-2 loss to the Flames in a two-game series earlier this season.

At 5v5, the Canucks are dead last in the league in a ton of key defensive metrics — shot attempts against/60, shots against/60, scoring chances against/60 — and close to last in others: high danger chances against/60, expected goals against/60. On paper, there isn’t a better matchup to run into for three games as the Leafs look to get their confidence up offensively at 5v5.

Again, playing 13 games in 22 days is no easy chore, but Vancouver is on its own island with Ottawa in terms of putrid defensive results so far this season:

The Canucks did like their overall effort level much better in their most recent game — another loss to Montreal — and remain a team you have to respect offensively, even as their power play uncharacteristically struggles (bottom 10 in the league after finishing in the top five last season… Manny Malhotra effect?). At 5v5, they’re in the top 10 in expected goals for/60, top 10 in scoring chances for/60, and top five in shooting percentage. It’s a Canucks offense and top six that is worthy of attention and respect with JT Miller, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, the emerging Nils Hoglander, and the fourth-forward threat of Quinn Hughes.

Now rested and practiced, the Leafs, if they are to pass this test in the next three games and take advantage of a team their closest divisional rival (Montreal) has made hay against, it will come through playing a disciplined game defensively and picking apart this Canucks team. Rather than play down to the opponent with sloppy, chancy, last-goal-wins hockey, hopefully, the Leafs — who have yet to win a game by more than one goal on a non-late-empty netter — can put together a few business-like wins where they dominate 5v5 play for larger spells of the game and don’t allow teams a foothold back into the contest. That would be a tangible step forward, having now had the chance to catch their breath and mix in a few full practice days after their 10-games-in-18-days start.

In terms of lineup notes, Nic Petan makes his season debut on the Leafs fourth line tonight, as it remains a carousel of different bodies down there, with Sheldon Keefe continuing to evaluate the options. Keefe doesn’t appear to be in a huge rush to settle on a go-to fourth-line — this despite Keefe’s mention that the Boyd, Engvall, and Anderson line we saw in Calgary was the team’s best L4 combination so far.

In a year with no exhibition season, there is value to providing opportunity, fostering competition, keeping various options involved, and collecting as much data as possible. Also worth mentioning: Cap wise, with Nick Robertson and Joe Thornton on LTIR, it gives the Leafs a window of flexibility to rotate players in and out more freely. At some point, though, you have to figure the Leafs need to see that line Keefe mentioned actually play together again to see if they’re really building something there.

Further up the lineup, Wayne Simmonds — riding the hot stick with three goals in his last four — is going to get a look next to William Nylander and John Tavares, with Ilya Mikheyev — who is playing well, but really struggling to produce despite expanded opportunity recently — rotating down onto Alex Kerfoot’s line opposite Jimmy Vesey.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the rotation on the fourth line:

We are providing more opportunities for more players. You look at Nic Petan, who just a few days ago was down with the Marlies and not even on the taxi squad. Now he is here and in the lineup tonight. We think that is healthy for the depth of the organization — to let players know, whether you are in our taxi-squad or stay-ready group or down with the Marlies, there are lots of reason to continue to work and be prepared.

It is a balance for sure. There will come a time where we have to settle on the people that we think are our absolute best lineup each day. We don’t think we are quite there yet, but we are inching closer to that, I believe. We are just going to continue to watch.

The best we’ve felt with that line is with Boyd, Engvall, and Anderson. Joey was sent down to the Marlies from the taxi squad, but that was not reflective of what we thought about him. We are still very much aware of who he is and where he is, if and when we decide we want to bring him back. We look at how that line skated, defended, how structured they were, the quickness and speed with which they got onto the puck — those are things that we think Nic can bring.

Keefe on the Canucks:

They are a very hard-working team, a very competitive team that has some high-end talent. If you make mistakes or take penalties, they will make you pay for it. They are a team that is searching for some consistency in their game, but from what we have seen in their games of late, they’re playing good hockey.

They have had a tough schedule here facing Montreal five times. That has allowed them opportunities to grow and find their way as a team. It is a group that I have watched closely enough through last season’s playoffs, and there are so many returning players that you know you are going to be in for a game any time you are up against them. There is not much that is going to catch us off-guard in that sense.

We are prepared for them throughout this three-game set to make it very difficult.

Keefe on the team’s 5v5 offense:

We have to get from our zone down to the offensive zone a lot quicker, a lot more efficiently, with a lot more speed and purpose. If we do that, I think there is going to be a lot more opportunities for our best players to do what they do.

Keefe on Petan’s opportunity:

The feedback on his attitude and the work he has put in there has been really good. I think it is more, in Nic’s case, that he has played in the NHL. We have been giving opportunities to other players who haven’t played as much as in the NHL or haven’t played as much for our team. As we have gone through it, we just felt Nic deserved to be in that group, in that conversation, and have that opportunity to compete for a spot.

Canucks head coach Travis Green on the Leafs:

You look throughout their lineup, they have a lot of skill and good skaters throughout their lineup. Their backend — same thing. They have speed and skill. We are going to have to be ready to play a fast game and a committed game — not just offensively, but defensively as well.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews  – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #15 Alex Kerfoot  – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#61 Nic Petan – #72 Travis Boyd – #19 Jason Spezza

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Zach Bogosian

#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson

Extras: Pierre Engvall, Mikko Lehtonen, Adam Brooks, Travis Boyd, Rasmus Sandin
Injured: Nick Robertson, Joe Thornton, Jack Campbell

Vancouver Canucks Projected Lines

#9 JT Miller – #53 Bo Horvat – #6 Brock Boeser
#70 Tanner Pearson – #40 Elias Pettersson – #36 Nils Hoglander
#26 – Antoine Roussel – #20 Brandon Sutter – #96 Tyler Gaudette
#64 Tyler Motte – #83 Jay Beagle – #18 Jake Virtanen

#43 Quinn Hughes – #4 Jordie Benn
#88 Nate Schmidt – #57 Tyler Myers
#23 Alexander Edler – #63 Jalen Chatfield

#35 Thatcher Demko
#49 Braden Holtby

Injured: Micheal Ferland, Jayce Hawyrluk, Travis Hamonic