After scraping out a last-minute victory against the Flames, the Maple Leafs continue to lead the North standings despite battling a variety of injury issues. Now they will have to fend off the fast-charging second-placed Oilers in a three-game series out in Edmonton (7 p.m. EST, CBC).
Here is a rundown of the changes today for the Leafs:
- Auston Matthews will miss the game after worsening his wrist/hand injury on Wednesday
- Jack Campbell returns and will start for the first time since January 24th
- Joe Thornton returns on a line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner
- Jake Muzzin returns and will return to his pairing with Justin Holl
- Alex Galchenyuk has been loaned to the Toronto Marlies along with Martin Marincin, while Kenny Agostino and Timothy Liljegren will join the Maple Leafs‘ taxi squad
Matthews’ absence almost makes the Leafs a different team altogether, given his extraordinary level of dominance alongside Mitch Marner and, when healthy, Joe Thornton on their left side. While he was held scoreless in his last two games, he picked up assists on both William Nylander goals on Thursday, and of course, he continues to lead the Leafs in individual xGoals/60, Shot Attempts/60, and on-ice xGoals/60 as well as the NHL in goals by a margin of four over Connor McDavid.
With their leading scorer out, the Leafs will turn to John Tavares to slot between Mitch Marner and Joe Thornton. With McDavid and Leon Draisaitl lined up down the middle on the other side, it will be a good test/statement opportunity tonight for Tavares — who has been under a microscope in Toronto this season for his five-on-five play — as well as Alex Kerfoot. Sheldon Keefe has also put together the Mikheyev – Engvall – Hyman line as a bit of an attempted security blanket; i.e., a line he’s less worried about if it has to take some shifts against the aforementioned Oilers top centermen without control over the matchups.
Since the last Leafs-Oilers meeting on January 30th, a 4-3 OT win for the Oilers, Edmonton has gone 11-2 and is first in the NHL with 22 points in that time frame. They’ve scored 53 goals at a league-best 4.07/game rate and only given up 32 on the back of a .923 save percentage (all-situations) that ranks fourth in the league. McDavid has 26 points in those 13 games, while Draiaitl has racked up 21.
These are huge four-point games in the divisional race, with the Oilers having closed the gap to four points despite a 3-6-0 start albeit with a game fewer remaining. Edmonton can really make this a multi-horse race for first with a 4-6 point result from this three-game set, while the Leafs could give themselves the luxury of a solid cushion 8-10 point cushion if they can win this mini-series.
In other lineup news, Alexander Barabanov will remain in his spot on what would be deemed the ‘second line’ with Alex Kerfoot and William Nylander. Having only exceeded eight minutes of playing time in one game before returning to the lineup this week, Barabanov has been capitalizing on his slightly expanded opportunity at five-on-five to show his stripes. He played 11:13 against Calgary on Monday before seeing only 8:48 in the last game.
The 26-year-old rookie has brought pace, energy and flashed some signs of his skill with the puck in the last couple of games, and Keefe will give him some more runway tonight to continue to gather confidence in the NHL. That said, with Zach Hyman down on the right side of the third line to start, he’ll have an easy switch for Keefe to make if the Kerfoot line isn’t gaining traction early on in the game.
The 38-year-old Mike Smith, having posted a 32-save shutout on Thursday, is the probable starter for Edmonton. Smith has started six of 13 games for the Oilers during their aforementioned streak, going undefeated in those games. On the season, he’s posted a .941 save percentage and a GSAx of 3.8, while the usual starter Mikko Koskinen has posted a .900 Sv% and a GSAx of -3.5.
As mentioned, Jack Campbell will start tonight as he returns from IR. He’s 2-0 on the season and, between 2018-2021, has posted a .917 Sv% and a GSAx of 7.8 — impressive backup numbers, to be sure. Campbell’s return affords the Leafs the luxury of taking as much time with the banged-up Frederik Andersen as needed.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on sending Alex Galchenyuk to the Marlies:
It’s an environment where he can really look to get comfortable and find his game in our surroundings and in our system and things like that. [We want him] to find his confidence and not be so concerned about his place in the lineup or making mistakes and things like that.
Keefe on the new top line of Thornton-Tavares-Marner:
Three really good players. It’s not new for us here. We’ve already played a game this season without Auston against the Oilers. So, putting John and Mitch together, they’ve got a lot of history and played together well this season and they’ve done it in previous seasons. Having Joe available today will give our whole group a boost.
Keefe on Alexander Barabanov’s increased role:
The biggest thing is he just looks more confident with the puck, he’s getting out of our zone and through the neutral zone a lot better. Some of that is circumstantial; he’s been in offensive positions and been able to use his strengths. The continued development we want to see from him is in those areas where the puck comes up the wall and he has to make a play in the defensive zone.
When we look at scoring chance generation, he’s been among the leaders for us in the last couple of games here, so you want to see if he can look to build upon that. Obviously, like all of our players, it needs to be done with a real good defensive foundation, but we want to keep him rolling here and see if we can get some traction.
Keefe on last time the Leafs played the Oilers without Matthews:
Yeah, we just played hard and we were resilient. Our power play was good for us. Everyone just steps up and plays a little bit more and plays a little bit better. Whether we had Auston or not, we know that’s [going to be important] with an Edmonton team that’s playing really well and is very confident.
Keefe on the Mikheyev-Engvall-Hyman line:
[They have] a lot of speed, a lot of tenacity on the puck. We like [them] on the road especially — matchups are difficult and having a line that you can feel good about when you put them over the boards [is important]. It was very effective for us in Montreal and we look to see that continue. The other lines have to be going well in order for us to maintain it because of the injures that we’re working through.
I think [Engvall] is finding a bit more comfort in his game here. Obviously, he played a lot more consistently here of late. I think Mikheyev, at the same time, has really been coming on here both with the puck and without the puck. He’s disrupting plays, making plays, getting down low in the offensive zone — he’s been very good.
We’ve already talked about Hyman and what he brings whatever line he’s on. I think it’s just the three of them really working together on that, but Pierre’s game is certainly starting to round out for us.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#97 Joe Thornton – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#94 Alexander Barabanov – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #47 Pierre Engvall – #11 Zach Hyman
#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
#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Injured: Wayne Simmonds, Jake Muzzin, Frederik Andersen, Auston Matthews
Extras: Kenny Agostino, Scott Sabourin, Timothy Liljegren, Mikko Lehtonen
Edmonton Oilers Projected Lines
#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – #97 Connor McDavid – #13 Jesse Puljujarvi
#21 Dominik Kahun – #29 Leon Draisaitl – #56 Kailer Yamamoto
#63 Tyler Ennis – #16 Jujhar Khaira – #15 Josh Archibald
#52 Patrick Russell – #91 Gaetan Haas – #39 Alex Chiasson
#25 Darnell Nurse – #22 Tyson Barrie
#4 Kris Russell– #6 Adam Larsson
#82 Caleb Jones – #75 Evan Bouchard
#41 Mike Smith (starter)
#19 Mikko Koskinen
Injured: Oscar Klefbom, Zach Kassian, Slater Koekkoek, William Lagesson