Earning shutouts in two consecutive games with two different backup goaltenders against Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers is quite the feat for the North Division-leading Maple Leafs. Tonight, they’ll attempt to complete a three-game sweep on the first night of a back-to-back — this time with their starting goaltender in between the pipes (8 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
After going without Auston Matthews for two consecutive games amidst a historic scoring-pace, the Leafs will welcome the return of the NHL’s leading goal-scorer tonight. Matthews didn’t practice this morning, but he was reluctant to take full-strength shots in practice yesterday, so it’s unclear if his wrist is back to a full 100%. Either way, it appears he’ll rejoin Mitch Marner and Joe Thornton on a line that has managed a 66% xGoals share and has only allowed one goal while scoring seven in their almost 100 minutes together.
While the Leafs have rightfully received praise for their defensive performances as of late, especially in their last two games, Jake Muzzin raises a good point about how the team could still raise the bar and improve further defensively:
I think we’ve been defending too much — I think we need to be cleaner with our breakouts and with our exits. We’ve done a good job defending. I think we’ve just done it too much. It’s been nice, though — we’ve had five guys and a goaltender all committed and doing the right things in our own zone. We’d just like to do it less.
Looking at shot attempts, the best simple proxy for possession among publicly-available statistics, the Leafs only controlled 40% of all shots on Saturday and only 34% on Monday. Of course, in both games, the Leafs earned a 3-0 lead that drastically changed the gameplan for the teams for the rest of the game. However, after adjusting for score effects, Toronto still only finished with 46% and 41% of shot attempts in their last two games, respectively.
The Maple Leafs will need to remain cognizant of what makes the Oilers a threat — particularly off the rush — and what led to the last two results in terms of limiting the Oilers’ odd-man opportunities, slowing McDavid down through the middle of the ice, and defending effectively in layers as a five-man unit. While more offensive zone time is a worthy goal, rather than focus on the negative, Leafs fans can be forgiven for taking the time to appreciate sound defensive cohesion that has prevented high-danger scoring chances and protected the team’s goalies so well of late.
Frederik Andersen, who hasn’t played since February 20th, will return to the starter’s net for the Maple Leafs tonight. Andersen hasn’t done anything in his recent performances to warrant any kind of goalie controversy in Toronto, putting aside the forgettable 6-5 loss on February 15th where Toronto gave four goals unanswered and lost in overtime. That won’t stop some fans and media from wanting to start one at a moment’s notice after the goaltending Jack Campbell (and even Michael Hutchinson of late) has provided for the team, but the reality is the situation is all positive and non-controversial: The Leafs are getting good goaltending no matter who is in the crease in part because they’re supporting their goaltenders properly.
In terms of lineup notes, the Leafs will reunite Kerfoot-Tavares-Nylander, allowing Keefe to keep the sparkplug HEM line together, which has been his preference on the road against when tough matchups, where a more collective approach to the shutdown effort is required.
On the Oilers side of things, Alex Chiasson’s cross-check on Jimmy Vesey after the final whistle last game earned him a one-game suspension from the player-safety department yesterday. He’ll be replaced by James Neal, who looks like he’ll join the first power-play unit with McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, and Barrie.
In the Edmonton net, after coming in to relieve Mikko Koskinen last game, Mike Smith will start tonight for the Oilers. Before giving up four goals to the Leafs on Saturday, Smith was 6-0 on the season with a .941 save percentage.
Game Day Quotes
Jake Muzzin on the Rielly-Brodie pairing:
Lots of good stuff. I mean, [Rielly] gets up the ice very well and you have [Brodie] supporting, being calm with the puck, and allowing plays to develop. You have [two] guys that have played a bunch of hockey. [Working together] has been easy for them. It’s been a good pair and we’re going to need them to continue to be a good pair.
Muzzin on how the Leafs were able to shut out the Oilers twice:
Well, the goaltending that we’ve had has been really solid, so that’s first and foremost. We’ve done a pretty good job of taking away time and space and trying to clog up the middle of the ice and force them to the outsides. We touched on it earlier — they’re good players, they’re going to get chances, and I expect them to come out hard tonight. We’re going to have to be ready.
As far as the challenge tonight — [it’s the] same thing. We’ve got to stick with it. We’ve got to stay on our path, we’ve got to play our game, and we’ve got to focus on what we’re doing that’s given us success.
Sheldon Keefe on the Rielly-Brodie pairing:
I think, of course, it helps greatly. They’ve helped eacho ther — [Rielly], the way he skates and is active in the rush, helps move the play up the ice. Brodie is there to be responsible and have a good stick and a good gap. For [Brodie], when it’s time to help the breakout, he makes a good play and that allows [Rielly] to atcivate as the offside defenseman. Both guys have paired well together and I’ve been happy with the way that has come together here — especially [because] it’s a new pairing, and there was no training camp or exhibition games.
Keefe on whether his team has surprised him with their play this year as we approach the halfway mark:
I wouldn’t say [so]. I wouldn’t say there’s anything I wasn’t expecting. We had high expectations of our team and high expectations of the individuals. The guys have delivered on that.
We’re happy with how things have gone here, but we also recognize, as much as things go quickly, there’s lots of hockey to be played and we’ve got to continue to grow as a group. We’re not where we think we can be as a team. We think we can continue to grow.
Keefe on the biggest difference in how his Leafs team plays defensively this season:
I would say it’s not so much a system change — more of an emphasis on parts of the system. [It’s also] a mindset. A lot of odd-man rush situations are created on loose pucks in the offensive zone. [You] need to make a decision on those loose pucks — am I going to put myself on the offensive side of it so that, if the puck goes on the offensive side, I’m going to be in a really good place? Or do I put myself in a spot where, if it doesn’t go our way as a team then defensively, I’m going to be in a good place?
I think we’ve made the wrong decision in those areas a lot of times in my time last season. That’s been a big focus for us. I think, for the most part, our players have been really good and diligent with that. That’s really the biggest difference for me.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#97 Joe Thornton – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #47 Pierre Engvall – #11 Zach Hyman
#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
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Injured: Wayne Simmonds, Jack Campbell
Extras: Kenny Agostino, Scott Sabourin, Nic Petan, Alexander Barabanov, Timothy Liljegren, Mikko Lehtonen
Edmonton Oilers Projected Lines
#18 James Neal – #97 Connor McDavid – #13 Jesse Puljujarvi
#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – #29 Leon Draisaitl – #56 Kailer Yamamoto
#63 Tyler Ennis – #16 Jujhar Khaira – #15 Josh Archibald
#10 Joakim Nygard – #8 Kyle Turris – #14 Devin Shore
#25 Darnell Nurse – #22 Tyson Barrie
#4 Kris Russell – #6 Adam Larsson
#82 Caleb Jones – #74 Ethan Bear
#41 Mike Smith (starter)
#19 Mikko Koskinen
Injured: Oscar Klefbom, Zach Kassian, Slater Koekkoek, William Lagesson