The Maple Leafs’ first matchup with the Canucks was an entertaining 10-goal affair in which they rolled over Vancouver with relative ease. Tonight, Toronto will try to hold off a Vancouver team that will be desperate to break their three-game losing slide (7 p.m. EST, CBC).
After a victory in their season opener against Edmonton, the Canucks have been a major disappointment coming off of their unexpected run to the second round in the 2020 playoffs, where they beat the St. Louis Blues and gave the Vegas Golden Knights a scare. They lost their next three games, scoring only four goals before a shootout win against Montreal. They then lost two more straight to the Habs 7-3 then 5-2 before bouncing back with three-straight wins against the last-place Senators.
A fourth straight win over the Jets last week preceded another pair of big losses to former-teammate Tyler Toffoli and the Montreal Canadiens, this time by scores of 6-2 and 5-3. The fact that they’ve only won six games, three of them against a rebuilding Senators team, has the Canucks fan base feeling justifiably uneasy.
Compared to even the most defensively inadequate teams in the NHL, the Canucks are a special level of incompetent to start the 2021 season — and that’s while being in arguably the worst of the four divisions. They’ve allowed 2.95 xGoals/60 at five-on-five, worst in the league above the Kings’ 2.88. Last season, Chicago finished with a league-worst 2.78 while the Canucks finished at 2.55*. It’s not new for the Canucks to be porous defensively, but the rate at which they’re giving up chances early this year has reached a new level.
*score and venue adjusted from evolving-hockey.com
Unlike last season, goaltending has not been a saving grace so far for Vancouver. Thatcher Demko has started eight games while Brayden Holtby has started six — both are just below a .900 save percentage and have both been slightly worse than average relative to what their team has given up, although it can be quite a strain on a goalie’s resolve and confidence facing a workload this tough. After the Leafs lit up Demko on Thursday, Holtby will get the start tonight — his last start was Monday against Montreal, where he gave up six goals.
The only lineup change on Toronto’s side will be Mikko Lehtonen in for Travis Dermott, this time due to Dermott’s short-term injury sustained during Thursday’s game.
The team’s bottom line, centered by Travis Boyd, will stay intact with Nic Petan playing his second game of the season and Jason Spezza coming off of his highlight-reel hat-trick. The Canucks as a whole made it very difficult on themselves with their woeful defensive habits all game on Thursday, but the Leafs‘ new-look bottom line took advantage, outperforming Alex Kerfoot’s line in only two fewer minutes. Petan, who only played 15 NHL games last season, has earned an extended opportunity as he looks to show he’s both responsible and capable of creating chances when he has the puck. The line’s skill level and offensive talent relative to the Canucks’ grind-it-out bottom-six was evident on Thursday.
Frederik Andersen, who is settling now into his critical contract year, will start again for Toronto with Jack Campbell still on IR. He’s been far from perfect, giving up 12 goals in his last four games, but those numbers aren’t helped by the fact that the Leafs have been trending downwards defensively despite winning five of their last six games.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on Travis Boyd and what impressed him before he came to Toronto:
I was able to watch him in the NHL and in the playoffs last season with Washington, in particular. He played a playoff game in the season that Washington won the cup as well, so he has some experience — not just in the NHL but in playing when it matters most.
There’s his background, of course, playing the American league. He was a very dangerous player with lots of skill — if you made a mistake, he could score. So, you saw that ability, which spoke to potential for him to be able to play up and down the lineup if required. He has, through his limited time in the NHL, produced at a pretty good rate.
Keefe on avoiding extended stretches of bad play this season:
[Slumps] are definitely what we don’t want to see. To expect that there’s not going to be lulls throughout a game or a season is probably unrealistic, particularly with this season and the way the schedule is with the travel and whatnot. Through the 11 games, I think that’s an area we’ve been real good at. Obviously, we’ve had good results. When we’ve had a bad period or a bad sequence in a game, we’ve responded and gotten it back on track.
That’s how we’ve found a way to win so many of those one-goal games. I’d say we’ve made major progress in that area. I think the players feel it, too. They’ve found themselves in some situations where they’ve looked at it and, in my talks with them, those are the kind of games we would have lost last season. In the early going, we’ve found our way on the right side of it, but each day is a new challenge and a new opportunity.
Keefe on Wayne Simmonds’ performance up the lineup with Tavares and Nylander:
I thought he did a good job. He’s showing lots of jump, skating really well, and he’s able to sustain it really well throughout games with his speed. He does a good job keeping his shifts short, so he gets off the ice before things get too difficult on his shifts, and he trusts his teammates to go out and do the job.
Obviously, his minutes have increased greatly as the season has gone on. We’ve seen the benefits of that when it comes to his confidence and his puck play. Beacuse of how he works, he goes to the net and creates things on the forecheck and he creates a lot more loose pucks for [Tavares] and [Nylander].
Keefe on his team’s two strong power-play units:
There is some competition there — that’s how we designed it and what we’d hoped would materialize. Both units have found success. That helps, of course. If you’ve got one that’s stalled or both have stalled, it’s probably not one you’d stick with for very long, but it’s caught on.
We do combine the two units together at different times if we feel the game calls for it or line changes happen, but we like the balance that we have. The players have responded well, most importantly.
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
#45 Mikko Lehtonen – #22 Zach Bogosian
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Extras: Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, Alexander Barabanov, Rasmus Sandin
Injured: Nick Robertson, Joe Thornton, Jack Campbell, Travis Dermott
Vancouver Canucks Projected Lines
#9 JT Miller – #40 Elias Pettersson – #6 Brock Boeser
#70 Tanner Pearson – #53 Bo Horvat – #35 Louis Eriksson
#35 Justin Bailey – #20 Brandon Sutter – #36 Nils Hoglander
#64 Tyler Motte – #83 Jay Beagle – #26 Antoine Roussel
#43 Quinn Hughes – #4 Jordie Benn
#88 Nate Schmidt – #57 Tyler Myers
#23 Alexander Edler – #63 Jalen Chatfield
#49 Braden Holtby (starter)
#35 Thatcher Demko
Injured: Micheal Ferland, Jayce Hawyrluk, Travis Hamonic