Following another four-day break in which fans eagerly awaited a trade that hasn’t come yet, the Toronto Maple Leafs are back in action against a tired Senators team that has won two in a row for just the third time this season (7 p.m. EST, TSN 4&5).
Tonight, the Leafs enter a busy stretch of eight-games-in-14-days after a two-week span that will serve as their only significant in-season rest period this season. Toronto will have three consecutive days off in late April and only one other stretch of two days off before the regular season ends on May 8th.
The Senators evened up the season series at three wins apiece 11 days ago when they caught the Leafs tired on a back-to-back situation on a Sunday night. Needless to say, with the trailing pack closing the gap in the division during the month of March, the Leafs have to take better advantage of the bottom feeder of the division. Edmonton, by comparison, has gone 7-0-0 against the Senators this season, which is a big reason why they’ve caught up to the Leafs in points (42), albeit the Oilers have played two more games.
With Wayne Simmonds promoted to the top line for the time being and Alex Galchenyuk in the midst of a trial run next to John Tavares and William Nylander, the Leafs‘ lines are sporting a more balanced look than they did in the earlier parts of the season, with both Hyman and Thornton moved down to the third and fourth lines. It’s natural to look at the forward lines and wonder if Leafs brass is trying out some new bottom-six combinations knowing that there is likely help coming from outside the organization on the left wing of the depth chart in the next few weeks.
On the Ottawa side of things, the Senators have settled into their best stretch of play in terms of goal prevention in part thanks to improved goaltending. They’ve allowed two goals or fewer in regulation in their last four games against Calgary and Vancouver.
Rrookie Artem Zub, a 25-year-old undrafted rookie signed out of the KHL (St. Petersburg), has seen his role expand this season as he’s gotten more comfortable in the NHL, currently helping solidify the Sens top four alongside Mike Reilly. Zub has played 26 games this season, averaging 17:15 of ice time, but his workload has increased to just over 20 minutes a game over his last five. He and Reilly were the Sens’ best pair in their back-to-back wins against the Flames — they managed a 67.4% xGF rating in those games, the Sens’ only pair over 50%.
Ottawa’s other top defense pair, consisting of Thomas Chabot and Nikita Zaitsev, has struggled badly of late. They have dreadful shot-based numbers in their last ten games and have given up ten goals at 5-on-5 while only scoring five. Zaitsev, in particular, has been way below water — score-adjusted, he has a 36.7% xGF rating and 40% shot-attempt rating in his last ten games.
As usual, D.J. Smith won’t reveal his starting goalie for tonight. While all their goalies are skating at this point, Matt Murray hasn’t played since March 10th while Marcus Hogberg hasn’t played since mid-February. 22-year-old rookie Filip Gustavsson started in both wins against Calgary — just his second and third NHL games — while only giving up two goals. Anton Forsberg is also healthy and in the mix, but he hasn’t played an NHL game since March of last year.
In the Leafs’ net, it’s a continuation of a potentially extended opportunity for Jack Campbell (4-0-0, .965 save percentage) to further stake a claim to the crease with a struggling Frederik Andersen on the injury mend.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the team’s goal in the coming weeks:
I think we’re just looking for greater consistency with all areas of our game, on both sides of the puck — special teams, and all those things. We’ve clearly shown at this point in the season that, no matter what area of the game it is, we’ve shown that we can do it very well. Many times when things have gotten away from us, we’ve lacked the consistency to keep doing it, so that’s really what we’re looking for here.
Increased practice time and rest that we’ve had here in the last couple of weeks should help us in that regard, especially as the schedule heats back up. The challenge for us here today, especially against a team that played last night and is going to be rolling here off the start, is that we have to get back into that game mode really quickly.
Keefe on Brady Tkachuk:
There are not many guys that play that role as well as he does. There are a lot of big, strong guys that go to the net, but [they] don’t necessarily have the skill set or the timing to make good on the chances.
He’s definitely someone who is difficult to handle in that area. The challenge is trying to break out quickly and not let him or his line spend time in the offensive zone so he doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to use the skills that he has getting to the net.
If you get back and get out clean, then you’re not having to play in our end and it takes away that strength from their game.
Keefe on the lack of injuries on the roster right now:
It’s definitely a positive. We’ve fought injuries thus far in the first half of the season. I hope we can stay healthy for the rest of the way, of course. The schedule will take its toll on our team at some point ,and we’ve to be able to manage that, deal with that, and use our depth.
We definitely want to take advantage of having this rested and healthy group here. It should certainly help our energy level and the way that we can roll four lines and six defensemen.
Keefe on how the Senators have progressed as a team this season:
I just feel they’re a team that, as the season has worn on, has gotten a lot more comfortable with how it is they want to play and need to play. At the same time, they’re a very young team and their young players are gaining a lot of experience and they’ve gone through a lot.
We have felt that, really from the start of the season, they’re a difficult team to play against. They’ve had a lot of nights where the game gets ahead of them early and they’ve had some difficulty getting some saves. Any time they’ve gotten those saves… they’re either winning games or are an extremely difficult team to beat.
You’re really seeing that here now. Just to focus on the last 20 games, they’re really as good as any team in the division in that sense. It’s a team that, because of their start, people perhaps overlooked them, but if you watch their games and focus on them, they’re doing a lot of things.
Obviously, [they] haven’t lost in regulation in five games here now. They’re a confident team and [probably] have played their best hockey against us, so we have every reason to be prepared here tonight.
D.J Smith on getting Braydon Coburn in on defense:
Just back-to-back games, he hasn’t played. He’s someone who defends really well against a team that can score. He gives us a fresh guy back there that can help us keep it out tonight against what we think is one the highest-firing offenses in hockey.
Smith on his team’s mentality tonight:
You’ve got to stay off the PK. You can’t give their power play extra looks — one or two penalties max. We’ve got to find a way to not give them high-end chances. If we do, they score. We have to have a defense-first mentality and try and limit their big guys’ touches.
Smith on Alex Forementon and what he brings to the PK:
Speed kills in this league and he can fly. As his detail gets better, he’s going to be a really good NHL player. I wasn’t afraid to put him in defensive situations last night. I think his speed will be able to create some offense — not only now but for years to come.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#24 Wayne Simmonds – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #47 Pierre Engvall – #11 Zach Hyman
#97 Joe Thornton – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Zach Bogosian
#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Extras: Martin Marincin, Timothy Liljegren, Nic Petan, Alexander Barabanov
Injured: Frederik Andersen
Ottawa Senators Projected Lines
#7 Brady Tkachuk – #9 Josh Norris – #63 Evgenii Dadonov
#18 Tim Stutzle – #71 Chris Tierney – #19 Drake Batherson
#13 Nick Paul – #36 Colin White – #10 Ryan Dzingel
#59 Alex Formenton – #64 Clark Bishop – #28 Connor Brown
#72 Thomas Chabot – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#38 Mike Reilly – #2 Artem Zub
#55 Braydon Coburn – #44 Erik Gudbranson
#31 Anton Forsberg
#32 Filip Gustavsson
Injured: Marcus Hogberg, Matt Murray, Joey Daccord, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Austin Watson