After capping off their three-game series sweep against Vancouver with an ugly win, the Maple Leafs are in for a much-anticipated first seed vs. second seed matchup against the Montreal Canadiens, who have sustained their consistent start to 2021 as of late with wins in four of their last five (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).

The lineup Montreal will deploy at five-on-five tonight looks to be more or less the same as the one they used in the first game of the season against Toronto with the exception of Corey Perry entering the lineup. The relative health and consistency of their lineup combined with their depth — including at the goaltending position now — has led to a smooth and steady first dozen games in the North Division for Montreal (8-2-2).

As in recent years under Claude Julien, the Habs are very good at establishing the upper hand in shot and chance control at 5v5 thanks to their structure, work habits, and deep lineup. So far in 2021, their numbers are even better than last season. They’re still lead the effective trio of Tatar-Danault-Gallagher, but the Drouin-Suzuki-Anderson line has been similarly dominant while producing better offensively. On line three, since Perry replaced Armia on the wing with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Tyler Toffoli, that trio has produced just under a 60% xG share in their seven games as a line and will provide a tough challenge for the ever-changing Kerfoot line, if the matchups work out that way.

Between Montreal’s ability to roll lines with a lack of drop-off upfront and their big, physical defense core, this two-game series should be a good challenge for the Leafs in terms of testing their depth and ability to control the critical areas of the ice against a hard-working, structurally-sound opponent at even strength. It’s an opportunity for the Leafs to make an early statement and put some distance between them and their nearest competition in the North, with the Habs three points behind Toronto with a game in hand while scoring and conceding goals at a slightly better per-game clip than the Leafs so far, in addition to their superior control of shot attempts and expected Goals:

The Leafs will return to 12 forwards and six defensemen tonight, with Nic Petan returning alongside Jason Spezza and Travis Boyd, who continues to make his case as a good option for the bottom line center spot. Pierre Engvall, who hasn’t played since the Leafs‘ 4-3 OT loss to the Oilers on January 30th, will enter the lineup on the Alex Kerfoot line as well.

On defense, Travis Dermott will make his way back in the lineup on his pairing with Zach Bogosian, while Rasmus Sandin and Mikko Lehtonen will be scratched again.

Similar to recent years, Dermott’s ability to defend his blueline off the rush and effectively move the puck out of his zone have allowed him to perform well statistically. Dermott hasn’t finished below league average or team average xGoalsAgainst/60 in any of the three seasons between 2017-20. However, the Leafs don’t generally produce much offensively with him on the ice, relatively speaking. His usage is a big factor in that trend, as he has played with less offensively capable forwards and against easier competition compared to his teammates. However, those usage variables fall short of totally explaining Dermott’s on-ice results in most public models, as he still outputs as a negative player offensively. With Justin Holl thriving this season in tough usage with Jake Muzzin and T.J Brodie locked in place beside Morgan Rielly, it’s on Dermott to make it work and earn more responsibility in his bottom-pairing role with two skilled left-handed puck movers right there beside him in the rotation.

Frederik Andersen (8-2-1, .904 Sv%, -0.7 GSAx) and Carey Price (4-1-2, .899 Sv%, -3.4 GSAx) are the confirmed starters in goal.

Game Day Quotes

John Tavares on his lack of five-on-five scoring:

Yeah, I definitely want to be a difference-maker, produce, and create opportunities. I think we need to continue to find ways to get to the interior part of the ice and have a nice balance of being a dual-threat, whether it’s scoring or making plays. Whether it’s through offensive zone plays through the dots or sustained pressure or coming in off the rush, it’s about finding ways to get to the interior part of the ice.

I would obviously like to have more, no doubt, but I try not to beat myself up about it. There have been a lot of good aspects to my game — not just offensively, but in a lot of areas. The way I feel out there, the way I’m moving is something, I’m really happy about — just trying to stick to the process that way not overthink the way that has gone and continue to find ways to contribute.

Tavares on the newer Covid-19 related protocols the NHL has implemented:

There was a little pushback from the players on the hour-and-forty-five minutes thing — I think it’s more just become a recommendation, but you’re still trying to be mindful of that. Obviously, playing at this level and knowing what it takes to prepare and what you’re competing for, guys obviously feel you need the proper amount of time to prepare.

I just know from my standpoint, [we’re] trying to fix one issue which is being around each other for long amounts of time — that’s obviously something were trying to limit. When we condense the time, it sometimes crowds guys into one or two areas because everyone is trying to do things at the same time to get ready. As a group, we’ve tried to respect that recommendation to be mindful of trying to prepare accordingly.

Sheldon Keefe on Covid-19 and its further effect on this season:

It’s affected us and we have to make adjustments. Whether it’s virtual meetings or the communication [difficulties] with masks on, social-distanced meetings, there’s lots of things we’ve had to adjust to. The locker rooms now are spread out so we’ve split the groups — that’s come down from the NHL where the dressing rooms are now spaced out whether it’s three or four that you’re using. Of course, at home, it’s the families that are affected by it and are doing their part to stay home and fight the virus — keep it out of not just what we’re doing [in the NHL], but also doing their part for the community.

Keefe on Montreal’s physical defensemen:

Obviously, it creates different challenges to be able to get to the net. They protect their net very well — it’s not just their defense but their forwards do a good job of that as well, helping with numbers and everything. That’s a challenge, but I think it’s one we’ve found a way through.

When we played them in the first game, we found enough ways to get there. Also, there’s other teams in the division that have big strong defensemen as well. You get used to having to find your way [to the net] and we’ve adapted our offence as needed. Like I said, it’s more about how they defend as a five-man group that’s the greatest challenge.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews  – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #15 Alex Kerfoot  – #47 Pierre Engvall
#51 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: Adam Brooks, Alexander Barabanov, Mikko Lehtonen, Rasmus Sandin
Injured: Nick Robertson, Joe Thornton, Jack Campbell, Wayne Simmonds

Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines

#90 Tomas Tatar – #24 Philip Danault – #11 Brendan Gallagher
#92 Jonathan Drouin – #14 Nick Suzuki – #17 Josh Anderson
#73 Tyler Toffoli – #15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #40 Joel Armia
#62 Artturi Lehkonen – #71 Jake Evans – #94 Corey Perry

#8 Ben Chiarot – #6 Shea Weber
#44 Joel Edmundson – #26 Jeff Petry
#77 Brett Kulak – #27 Alexander Romanov

#31 Carey Price (starter)
#34 Jake Allen

Scratched: Paul Byron, Victor Mete