After the Toronto Maple Leafs snapped a three-game losing slide with a thrilling 4-3 overtime win to tie this week’s series at 1-1, the rubber match against the Winnipeg Jets airs tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. EST, CBC).
Remarkably, Auston Matthews, despite battling through a wrist injury that is keeping him from shooting anywhere near 100%, is in the midst of another scoring streak with three goals in his last two games.
The fact that he’s remained an elite scoring threat, even when his opponents are now aware of his limitations, is indicative of how dominant Matthews’ boundless offensive repertoire has become. It is rare to ever see Matthews pass up an opportunity to shoot, especially when he has space in the middle of the ice as he did in the example below:
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) March 12, 2021
Muzzin ends up with a decent attempt on goal here, but it’s a situation that would normally play out with Matthews using the defender as a screen to pick a corner or force Hellebuyck into a great save.
Despite Matthews’ limitations, Sheldon Keefe doesn’t seem to think the team is risking anything by continuing to play him:
Medically, from what they’ve told me, it’s something that can get better even while he’s playing — that’s why he’s continuing to play. Obviously, when you get rest, it helps the cause but I think he and the medical team have been handling it very well.
To start tonight, Matthews will play with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman. There are a few things at play with Hyman replacing Joe Thornton on the top line from the start:
- The Leafs have trailed in both games versus the Jets and then moved Hyman up, which has been Keefe’s go-to adjustment throughout the season when the team is playing from behind. In such an important game/series, that’s a trend the Leafs need to reverse. Trailing hockey is often losing hockey, and it leaves the team vulnerable to the Jets’ dangerous counter-punching ability as the Leafs push to even up the game.
- It helps boost a Matthews-Marner duo that isn’t quite as threatening as usual given Matthews’ shooting limitations.
- Hyman, in his last five games, leads the team in individual xG/60 and is the only player on the team without a giveaway. There is no doubt he is worthy of top-line minutes right now more than ever.
Presumably, Thornton will join John Tavares and William Nylander, meaning Alex Kerfoot will join the third line. While he’s missed a lot of time, featuring in only 16 games thus far, Thornton sits 4th on the team in Regularized-Adjusted-Plus-Minus (RAPM) xGA/60 and first in CA/60. Even when he hasn’t been scoring, he usually makes the right play with the puck and his defensive acumen/hockey sense ensures he’s no burden on any line.
The fit next to Tavares is a worthwhile experiment, as his playmaking ability next to two players who can shoot — and on a line that plays at a more methodical and less breakneck pace — seems like a stylistic match.
The only other change for Toronto will be Travis Boyd, unsurprisingly, replacing Kenny Agostino on the bottom line. Agostino played a mere 4:08 last game as the Leafs played a large percentage of the game hunting for a goal.
As the Jets search for the optimal deployment of their impressive top-six forwards, newly-acquired Pierre-Luc Dubois linemates Kyle Connor and Nik Ehlers have been big offensive producers as of late. Both players have two goals and four assists in six games since the beginning of March, while the duo of Mark Schiefele and Blake Wheeler are the team leaders in on-ice xGF/60, with six and four points in those game, respectively.
The Leafs have controlled both games so far, but the danger of this group of forwards if the Leafs aren’t managing the puck properly and limiting odd-man rushes against has been clear to see in the season series to date.
After Connor Hellebucyk pulled off another fantastic performance on Thursday despite the Leafs scoring four times, much to the delight of the Maple Leafs, backup Laurent Brossoit will start for Winnipeg tonight. Brossoit is 4-1-1 on the season with a .923 Sv% and a GSAx of 2.3. Frederik Andersen is expected to start tonight before Michael Hutchinson presumably gets the nod tomorrow against Ottawa.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on Zach Hyman’s game lately:
I don’t think there’s much to say about Hyman that hasn’t already been said. The work ethic that he has and the consistency that he brings with it, in addition to the confidence that he brings now with the puck and hang onto [it], just adds a whole other layer that makes him a very tough player to handle for the opposition.
Keefe on what went “wrong” with Mikko Lehtonen:
Not having exhibition games really made it difficult for any incoming player to get the chance to sort of get the bugs out and adjust to the league, show what they can do, earn some additional trust — all those things. We think, all things considered, we adjusted to the situation and gave him an opportunity to play in the top six. We had Travis Dermott on the outside through training camp, and just made a decision that [Lehtonen] needed more time. That’s how it’s worked out.
He’s definitely a talent and he worked really hard here and waited for his chance. I think, at the same time, we’ve got a number of other people in the organization that didn’t get the opportunity that Mikko had this season. It’ll open up more space and opportunity for them.
At the same time, [Dubas] is able to find a place for Mikko to go — he’s an unrestricted free agent here at the end of the year. It’s a big year for him, so I think there’s something to be said for that as well. We wish him all the best.
Paul Maurice on his group performing poorly in shot- and chance-based metrics:
There’s a whole bunch of different ways the puck can get to your net from that area. I think your opponent has something to do with it. There are teams that generate a lot of slot shots that you never consider particularly dangerous — those are just on the outside, poor angle shots [where] a rebound doesn’t happen.
What you don’t like are the slot shots that you don’t control. Every team has strengths and weaknesses — there are teams that do a really good job of controlling that slot, but they don’t win a lot of games, and then there are teams that win on that alone. You take a look at what your group is, what you’re good at, and where you excel. For us, that’s a challenge. We’ve known that for a while, and the advantage is we’ll score some goals without having a ton of slot shots.
The offense that we do produce, it’s not from throwing pucks at the net all the time, but there are teams that do that. We’ve got more risk in our game than other teams, possibly, and we’re trying to get that right balance in to try to give our goalies a chance to be as good as they are.
Maurice on what the Leafs do well in the offensive zone:
They do a real good job of creating a problem for you before the puck gets to the slot. You look at a lot of the one-on-one play that happens down low, and we want to have layers with that. We don’t want to be man-to-man in the corners where a guy can spin out. They make those plays, and there’s a skill to it.
The other thing to it is: There’s a real willingness on that team now that maybe we didn’t see in years past to go to the net. It holds the [defenseman] and turns it into a four-on-four game, which they really excel at. Looking at the areas that we need to improve, they’re very strong in those areas.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#97 Joe Thornton – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#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: Scott Sabourin, Kenny Agostino, Martin Marincin
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
#64 Logan Stanley – #2 Dylan Demelo
#30 Laurent Brossoit (starter)
#37 Connor Hellebuyck