With a nine-point cushion between them and the rest of the North Division following a three-game dismantling of the now-third-place Edmonton Oilers, the Maple Leafs head to Vancouver for a meeting with the badly-struggling Canucks (10 p.m. EST, TSN4).

Vancouver’s easily-identifiable issues this season, primarily team defense and goaltending, have been as problematic as ever in recent weeks. Over their last 15 games since the beginning of February, the Canucks have the league’s second-worst record at 3-10-2 — only Buffalo’s 2-8-1 is worse. Vancouver is dead last in xGoalsAgainst/60 over that time-frame and has conceded the 30th-most goals against per game (3.53), which is right in line with their 30th ranked goaltending (.898 Sv%).

After signing a two-year, 4.3M AAV contract with Vancouver this past summer, Braden Holtby has been second best in the goaltending battle to 25-year-old Thatcher Demko, who has started 15 games to Holtby’s 11. Tonight, after earning a shutout win on Monday — followed by Holby giving up four in a loss the next day — Demko will be in the starter’s net against a confident Leafs team.

The Canucks underlying numbers offensively have been solid during the 3-10-2 stretch. — they’ve produced the 3rd best xGoals/60 rating in the league — but they have finished on an abysmal 7.2% of shots, ahead of only the lowly Sabres, Predators, and Red Wings. Not helping matters tonight, Elias Pettersson, their second-leading scorer with 10 goals in 25 games, is a late scratch due to a minor injury.

In sum, these two teams could not be on more starkly different trajectories this season. The Leafs have also beaten the Canucks in all three meetings so far, but there is the caveat that the Leafs are tired and the Canucks are rested, along with the usual warnings about trap games.

The only change in the Maple Leafs‘ lineup tonight will be Nic Petan entering the mix. Petan replaces Travis Boyd, who has played in five straight games and produced eight points in 16 games (three goals, five assists) this season. Petan, whose quickness, puck skills, and playmaking ability have been on display when he’s been in the lineup, has struggled to earn as much trust as Boyd on that bottom line with his play away from the puck, but he’s shown enough for Keefe to keep him in the rotation as the Leafs‘ 13th/14th forward, and he is also from the BC area.

Keefe, either holding his cards close to his chest or playing wait-and-see with the various injury situations, didn’t reveal who would start in goal tonight. It has been a while since Frederik Andersen has played both games in a back-to-back, but the amount of rest he’s gotten lately might impact the decision.

Game Day Quotes

Mitch Marner on the HEM line:

I think that whole line is [a bit] of a juggernaut line with the speed it’s got on it. You put [Mikheyev], [Engvall], and [Hyman] together, it’s three guys that can work really well — guys that are hungry for the puck.

On the forecheck, [they’re] a bunch of dogs, really. It’s been fun to watch those three go to work, especially these last few games. All three of them are starting to get some really good chemistry going, and it’s nice to see them get rewarded as well.

Sheldon Keefe on what he wants from his bottom-six forwards:

Production from those lines is very important, of course. When we get contributions from those guys, it certainly helps and is welcome. However, what it means to me is that we expect those guys to be the standard for us in terms of the execution of the systems, the structure, the competitiveness, and the work ethic. They have to be really, really good in those areas.

Obviously, you [give] your top guys a little more freedom and they’re doing the things that they get paid for and that make them special and elite. We need to have models of consistency [when it comes to] structure with those lines. That’s really what we’re looking for.

It’s something we talk a lot about. We’ve had a lot of contributions from our depth through the season and we love that. We want to make sure there’s no sacrifice in those areas.

Keefe on Morgan Rielly’s progression in 2021:

I think he’s been really good. I think he’s been playing with a lot of assertiveness offensively and defensively. Offensively, he’s at his best when he’s using his legs and skating by people, getting into the rush, and giving us that extra option coming out of our zone. [When he] gets moving around in the offensive zone, those are the things that make him who he is and we like that about him and what it brings to our team.

Defensively, closing on people in our own zone and maintaining a tighter gap are two things that we’ve talked a lot to him about. He’s really been committed to that. I think our defense as a whole has done a really good job for us throughout this season.

The small improvements that Morgan has shown have really added to what is already a very good and established defenseman in the NHL.

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 – #19 Jason Spezza – #61 Nic Petan

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Zach Bogosian

#30 Michael Hutchinson (starter)
#31 Frederik Andersen

Injured: Wayne Simmonds, Jack Campbell
Extras: Kenny Agostino, Scott Sabourin, Travis Boyd, Alexander Barabanov, Timothy Liljegren, Mikko Lehtonen

Vancouver Canucks Projected Lines

#70 Tanner Pearson  – #53 Bo Horvat – #18 Jake Virtanen
#36 Nils Hoglander – #9 JT Miller – #6 Brock Boeser
#56 Marc Michaelis – #20 Brandon Sutter – #96 Adam Gaudette
#26 Antoine Roussel – #83 Jay Beagle – #79 Jayce Hawryluk

#23 Alexander Edler – #88 Nate Schmidt
#43 Quinn Hughes – #27 Travis Hamonic
#4 Jordie Benn – #57 Tyler Myers

#35 Thatcher Demko (starter)
#49 Braden Holtby

Injured: Micheal Ferland, Justin Bailey, Tyler Motte, Elias Pettersson