After a 1-4-0 stretch, a tired Maple Leafs team is in Ottawa tonight looking to calm the waters before entering a four-day break from game action (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Tonight’s game will conclude a stretch of eight games in 15 days for the Maple Leafs. After this game, they’ll face the Flames in a back-to-back in Toronto this Friday-Saturday before breaking for four days again next week. Those two stretches are the only instances where the Leafs have more than two consecutive days off until the April 12th trade deadline.
While they’re dealing with a tricky cap situation that will be prohibitive to some extent, Kyle Dubas is one GM we can confidently state has the green light from his ownership group to add more salary to the books amid the league’s economic downturn. That should make for an interesting few weeks coming up. Barring complete disaster, given their positioning in the standings and the path to the Conference Finals within this division, it’s hard to picture the next 12 games significantly altering management’s buying intent.
That’s not to say a failure to bounce back with a victory tonight won’t lead to a lot of hand-wringing among the media and fan base all week during the break.
Last night’s loss to Winnipeg was the first time since their game against Vancouver two weeks ago that the Leafs lost the shot-attempts battle. Winnipeg has struggled to play positive puck-possession hockey in recent years; while winning the shot-attempts battle isn’t everything, the fact that the Leafs were outpaced by the Jets in that department for basically the entirety of the game last night was indicative of one of the team’s poorer efforts of the season.
Zach Hyman was moved back to his spot alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, but they were outplayed last night by the Jets’ top matchup line consisting of Mark Schiefele, Blake Wheeler, and Paul Stastny. Expect Sheldon Keefe to be patient with a trio that has been dominant more often than not this year and continues to operate with a less-than-100% Auston Matthews.
It’s further down the lineup where Keefe (and potentially Kyle Dubas) might have some changes to make in the coming days and weeks. After AHL veteran Kenny Agostino played just over four minutes on Thursday, Travis Boyd was limited to just 6:22 last night, around two minutes less than his linemates Jimmy Vesey and Jason Spezza. Averaging 9:46 on the season, Boyd was regularly eclipsing the 11-minute mark earlier in the season, but his ice time has dropped to just over six minutes in his last two games as his defensive numbers have slipped. With Mikko Lehtonen departed in a trade to Columbus, Travis Boyd is now last on the Leafs in SVA xGA/60.
With Wayne Simmonds beginning to skate this week as he comes back from a hand injury — not to mention, all of Alex Barabanov, Alex Galchenyuk, and Nic Petan are making good impressions with the Marlies at the moment — there may be some new looks to come lower in the lineup before long.
In net, Michael Hutchinson will start tonight while Jack Campbell inches closer to a return. Hutchinson is 3-2-0 on the season with a .928 Sv% and a GSAx of 0.15. Matt Murray, who has struggled all season and gave up seven goals to Edmonton on Wednesday, is the unconfirmed-but-expected starter for Ottawa. He is 7-12-1 on the season with a .880 Sv% and a GSAx of -19 (dead-last among all goalies with >50 minutes played).
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the team’s energy levels and the need to respond tonight:
You’re feeling the schedule. It’s having an effect, but I think it’s all relative. There is no reason for us to not be all in on this game here with the response needed from last night’s game. We do have a bit of time to decompress after.
Senators head coach D.J Smith on what they’ve done well against the Leafs this season:
When we’ve beaten them, we’ve had really good goaltending. Our guys get feeling loose and we’ve scored some goals and made some plays. We’ve been up for the games [against] them for sure.
I think they’ve been good battles. There are some teams we’ve matched up well [against] and others we haven’t, but we’ve found a way to be really competitive in the games against [Toronto].
D.J Smith on fourth-line center Clark Bishop, who made his Senators debut on Friday:
I thought he was very responsible and he wins faceoffs. I think he’s got a little bit of pace to his game with some size. We’d like to look at him again.
D.J Smith on Nick Paul’s versatility and growth:
I think Nick can do a bit of everything. You know, he played centre in Junior — he’s really improved on faceoffs, especially [on] his backhand. I trust Nick in all situations. He’s one of those guys — if you needed him to play a bottom-six role at center, he could.
I think he also complements centers because he can play in his own zone. He’s kind of a guy that all coaches want to have on their team. He can play in all situations.
D.J Smith on dealing with losing when coaching a rebuilding team:
Players want to win every single day and everyone wants to win. We know where we’re at as a team and as an organization compared to where Toronto is or Edmonton is. They’re competing and trying to win the Stanley Cup today.
Not to say that [young teams] don’t have a chance to ever win, but you have to go through the trials and tribulations of young guys turning it over and making mistakes and causing goals. I think it’s Auston Matthews’ fifth year this year — now it looks like [Toronto’s] ready to go.
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
#30 Michael Hutchinson (starter)
#31 Frederik Andersen
Injured: Wayne Simmonds, Jack Campbell
Extras: Scott Sabourin, Kenny Agostino, Martin Marincin
Ottawa Senators Projected Lines
#7 Brady Tkachuk – #9 Josh Norris – #28 Connor Brown
#13 Nick Paul – #71 Chris Tierney – #63 Evgenii Dadonov
#18 Tim Stutzle – #63 Matthew Peca* – #19 Drake Batherson
#10 Ryan Dzingel – #64 Clark Bishop – #16 Austin Watson
*Colin White will be a game-time decision
#72 Thomas Chabot – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#38 Mike Reilly – #2 Artem Zub
#24 Christian Wolanin – #44 Erik Gudbranson
#34 Joey Daccord (starter)
#30 Matt Murray
Injured: Marcus Hogberg, Derek Stepan