Joe Thornton returns to the lineup tonight as the Toronto Maple Leafs look to bounce back from their first regulation loss in nine games in the first of a three-game series versus the Ottawa Senators (7 p.m. EST, TSN4/5).

Thornton will step back onto a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, as head coach Sheldon Keefe alluded to seeing enough positive things — citing Thornton’s playmaking, presence down low, and ability to track defensively — to continue on with a line experiment that was disrupted by Thornton’s rib injury sustained against the Oilers in the fifth game of the season back on January 20.

The trickle-down effect of Thornton’s return is that the John Tavares – William Nylander line, still looking to hit its stride offensively at 5v5, will receive the boost of Zach Hyman joining the unit. The second winger slot on that line has been a bit of a rotation of primarily two players that are struggling offensively — Jimmy Vesey, Ilya Mikheyev — and we’ve seen in the past how effective Hyman-Tavares can be from its time as a dominant 5v5 line with Hyman next to Tavares-Marner. Especially given the opponent, this should be a good chance to get this group up and running again offensively as neither Tavares or Nylander has scored since the Vancouver series.

While this three-game series presents a good opportunity to get new lines rolling offensively — similar to the Vancouver series — the Senators should not go under-estimated by a Leafs team that has rarely had an easy night against them even as Ottawa has been in the basement of the league over the past few seasons. The season series sits 1-1, with the Senators putting five past the Leafs in the second game of the season before Toronto bounced back the next night with a 3-2 win. The Leafs are 5-4-0 against the Senators dating back to October 2018.

The Senators are coming off of a good performance in their recent win over Winnipeg, where they snatched the two points with under 10 seconds left in a 1-1 game. They’ve played Montreal tightly this season, with a 3-2 win and a 2-1 loss so far in the season series. They’ve been blown out a bunch this season, too, but when they’re on their game, they play the opposition physically and make sure everything is earned.

Game Day Quotes

DJ Smith on the Leafs:

They are a team that is ready to win now. They are the best team in the NHL record-wise. They have all kinds of offense. Their power play is a big-time unit. They are where we want to be going forward.

We have to play our game, though. 60 minutes defensively [in Winnipeg] — we have to play like that every night. If we do that, we give ourselves a chance to win.

Smith on how the Sens play when they have their A game:

We don’t give you much. We don’t give you odd-man rushes. We don’t take a lot of penalties. We can grind you offensively. That is where we have to be good. We have to be even or better on special teams, and we can’t give you freebies. When we are playing good, we make you earn everything you are going to get.

Sheldon Keefe on the challenge against the Senators:

We have played them twice early in the season. They were two of the most difficult games in terms of their structure and trying to get to the net. They were two of the hardest games we’ve played this season. This week, it is going to be no different.

In the Battle of Ontario, they play at their best. When you look at the style, I have been watching a lot of Ottawa’s games, and it is the way they play. They are going to make it hard on the opponent. They haven’t gotten the results. They haven’t gotten great luck with goaltending and scoring and things like that, but there are no easy shifts. These guys play hard. They play together as a team. They block shots and they’re physical on everything. They protect their net well and don’t beat themselves.

You saw it the other night with the win they got in Winnipeg. They’ve beaten Montreal and they’ve beaten us. They are capable of making life real hard and hanging around in games. We are coming into this series here knowing we are going to be in a battle that is not going to be a whole lot different than we faced against Montreal.

Keefe on the team’s physicality and the emphasis on it after the Montreal game:

We talked about it. We have some guys that it is not part of who they are, and yet they are really good at coming in and getting their stick on a puck and getting a separation that way. It is not a matter of us running through guys and chasing contact and finishing checks after the puck is gone. Sometimes, keeping yourself alive and in the play to help give you the numerical advantage on the next play is important, too. We have a number of players who that is part of how they are built and that is part of their game.

At the same time, we really talk about, when the puck is there and it is a chance to establish an advantage in that play, we’ve got to use our body physically to establish that. That has been the message since day one of camp. We have seen some growth in that area.

We have some other guys throughout our lineup where it has to be part of who they are. We need to have some growth in that regard. At different times, we have, but we are still looking for some consistency there.

Keefe on the return of Joe Thornton:

Part of the reason why we added guys like Joe and Wayne Simmonds to our forward group is the voice and the energy they have, the work they put in on the ice, and their skill sets that add to our team. Joe is playing on our top line with Auston and Mitch. Wayne was playing really well when he got injured on a line with John and Will.

It just goes to show what they meant to our group. Having one of them back today in Joe certainly does give us a boost. At the same time, everyone has to take it upon themselves — not look for others to bring it, but take care of their own game.

Smith on the Paul – White – Dadonov line:

They can defend. They get chances. They work. They are an identity line for us there. They are what we want to be up and down — offense and defense. Pauly can take left draws and Whitey can take right draws. They have been a really good line for us.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#97 Joe Thornton – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander   – #91 John Tavares – #11 Zach Hyman
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #47 Pierre Engvall
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #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

Injured: Wayne Simmonds, Jack Campbell
Extras: Nic Petan, Alex Barabanov, Scott Sabourin, Mikko Lehtonen, Martin Marincin

Ottawa Senators Projected Lines

#7 Brady Tkachuk – #71 Chris Tierney – #28 Connor Brown
#13 Nick Paul – #36 Colin White – #63 Evgenii Dadonov
#18 Tim Stutzle – #15 Derek Stepan – #19 Drake Batherson
#51 Artem Anisimov – #9 Josh Norris – #16 Austin Watson

#72 Thomas Chabot – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#38 Mike Reilly – #2 Artem Zub
#24 Christian Wolanin – #44 Erik Gudbranson

#1 Marcus Hogberg (starter)
#34 Joey Daccord

Injured: Matt Murray, Erik Brannstrom