After losing two consecutive regulation games in a row for the first time this season to one of the division’s bottom feeders, the Maple Leafs begin a critical three-game series against the hottest team in the North, the Winnipeg Jets, tonight in Toronto (7 p.m. EST TSN 3&4).
Winnipeg and Toronto are in very similar stretches at the moment: both have seven wins and three regulation losses in their last 10 games and both are 2-2 in their last four. The Jets still trail the Leafs by seven points with two games in hand, sporting a .646 points percentage to the Leafs‘ .731. Notably, while the second-place Edmonton Oilers only trail Toronto by one regulation win, the Jets have only 10 regulation wins to the Leafs‘ 16.
While the Maple Leafs have maintained strong control over the puck as of late — they have the best five-on-five xG rating in the NHL in their last 10 games — only scoring three goals in two games against the Canucks despite generating tons of looks represents a down period offensively. On one hand, the offensive dip is probably just down to the ebbs and flows of the season considering they have continued to produce chances at high rates at five-on-five and on the power play. If you were really searching for causes for alarm, though, it’s the return to Earth for the top line of late coinciding with Auston Matthews’ wrist injury and his three-game pointless (five-game goalless) drought.
Acquired on January 23rd, tonight will only be Pierre-Luc Dubois’ 10th game with Winnipeg. Working his way from the wing to center amidst cautious deployment, Dubois has only averaged 15.5 minutes of ice time in his nine games with Winnipeg and, despite centring a line with Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor as of late, has remained in the more conservative territory with his minutes over his last few games. He has also been relegated to the second-unit power play for the time being.
Nonetheless, the Connor-Dubois-Ehlers line has tremendous offensive potential and should be the subject of extra matchup focus for the Leafs in addition to the Mark Scheifele line. All three players, Dubois and Ehlers especially, are elite in transition and, on their best nights, control the play very well.
Dubois is a natural fit in terms of playing style as well. He possesses a dangerous shot — the Leafs learned all about that last August — but he skews more towards playmaking than either Ehlers or Connor. Dubois shoots significantly less than the other two — he’s in the 64th percentile for individual shot attempts, while Ehlers (97th) and Connor (88th) are elite shot takers who both shoot and score and at well-above-average levels. Dubois is the only one with a proportionately higher rate of shot assists, sitting in the 88th percentile (transition and shot assist data: A3Z performance tool).
In four games together, the trio has yet to score a goal at even-strength and has given up three, although their 59% xGF rating suggests that should improve over time.
Both coaches have said there will be no changes to their starting lineup from their last games. That means, for the Leafs, Nic Petan remains a healthy scratch and Travis Boyd will center the bottom line with Jason Spezza and Jimmy Vesey. Both teams’ usual starters will be in the net as well: Frederik Andersen is 12-4-2 with a .906 save percentage and has allowed 3.6 more goals than expected this season, while Connor Hellebuyck is 11-7-1 with a .911 Sv% and has allowed .65 more goals than expected.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge in front of the team tonight:
As I alluded to yesterday, they had injury issues last time we [played them]. They’re a very deep team. Every shift, they’re coming and have different elements on every line, every d-pair, and, obviously, in goal.
[They] have lots of confidence right now as a team. They’ve played extremely well. They present great challenges and you’ve got to be prepared for that, but most of all, we have to make sure that — coming off the west-coast road trip — we come back here and get back to our game.
Keefe on Pierre-Luc Dubois:
Big strong guy, skates really well through the neutral zone, and he has a good shot. No matter how they use him or who he’s playing with, he’s a lot to handle. He, of course, is one of many dangerous people that they have and we have to do a good job against.
Keefe on the number of minor tweaks to the team’s power-play personnel:
Really just trying to find something we like. We’ve dealt with injuries, whether it’s Thornton our or Simmonds out — two important pieces of [the power play]. Then you’ve got Auston’s situation here in the last little while, so we’re just trying to find that right mix, but I think it’s really nothing more than dealing with and compensating for injuries.
Pierre-Luc Dubois on his linemates Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor:
I love playing with those two guys. [Ehlers] I knew from junior what he could do [Connor] we played against only twice a year, but the speed, hands, passing, and the shooting — he can do everything. I know this year, he’s been shooting the puck more and he’s got a good shot, so why not? I think [Connor] is one of the most underrated players in the NHL — he’s dangerous, he can pass the puck also, but he’s got such a quick release that it’s fun to play with [him].
I think, as a centerman, I have to support those two guys. In the defensive zone, I’ve got to work for them and win the puck so we can get up ice. I’ve loved playing with them.
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 (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Injured: Wayne Simmonds, Jack Campbell
Extras: Kenny Agostino, Scott Sabourin, Nic Petan, Alexander Barabanov, Timothy Liljegren, Mikko Lehtonen
Winnipeg Jets Projected Lines
#25 Paul Stastny – #55 Mark Schiefele – #26 Blake Wheeler
#81 Kyle Connor – #13 Pierre-Luc Dubois – #27 Nikolaj Ehlers
#9 Andrew Copp – #17 Adam Lowry – #82 Mason Appleton
#95 Mathieu Perreault – #11 Nate Thompson – #23 Trevor Lewis
#44 Josh Morrisey – #3 Tucker Poolman
#24 Derek Forbort – #4 Neal Pionk
#88 Nathan Beaulieu – #2 Dylan Demelo
#37 Connor Hellebuyck (starter)
#30 Laurent Brossoit