After taking control of the game early and never looking back in their 3-1 win over the Jets on Wednesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs can further pad their North Division lead (now at three points with a game in hand) in the rematch tonight in Winnipeg (8 p.m. EST, TSN 3&4).
The tendency in this market is to fixate on the few areas of concern in a season that is otherwise humming along nicely for this Leafs team, and in that regard, the 0-for-22 power play is a major talking point at the moment. Their power play has sometimes shaded more towards the quality over quantity approach relative to other teams, but of late, they’re clearly not generating enough at the net — they’ve put just 13 shots on goal on the power play in the last four games in nearly 20 minutes of power-play time.
Taking a wider view on it, in their first 27 games of 2021, the Leafs were first in both shots on goal and expected goals per 60 at 5v4. Since then, they’ve fallen to 24th and 19th, respectively.
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Sheldon Keefe mentioned at practice yesterday that he wants to focus on getting back to the two-unit setup that they were rolling with at the beginning of the season. That strategy, one they’ve gone back at times during their slump, has John Tavares and William Nylander on the ‘second’ unit with Jason Spezza and co., while Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton join Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly on the other unit.
Arguments against the split-unit approach often point to the many games where the team has gone “0-for” and the likes of John Tavares and William Nylander are left with scraps (~30-second shifts) at the end of power-play opportunities, often doubled up in power-play time by the likes of Thornton and Simmonds. After shifting to the loaded unit on Wednesday, though, Sheldon Keefe was pretty emphatic about abandoning it in his press conference yesterday. Whether it was afforded a long enough runway to get the loaded unit gelling again is a debatable point.
Regardless of the personnel decisions, the simplistic solution — looking at the numbers and lack of shots and chances of late — is getting back to basics, getting pucks to the net, and out-numbering the penalty killers down there. If one of these groups can force something good to happen that way, it’ll do wonders for easing the tension on the units that have far too much talent on them for this to keep up much longer.
After leaving the game in the first period on Wednesday, Blake Wheeler practiced with the team this morning and is likely in the lineup tonight, but he will be a game-time decision. The Jets don’t currently have any injuries at forward outside of Bryan Little, who is out for the year battling the awful concussion he sustained last season. Miraculously, Wheeler has only missed one game dating back to the end of the 2014-15 season.
The battle in goal tonight should be the same as on Wednesday’s game, where a few early goals past Connor Hellebuyck — both earned with hard plays at the net front by Zach Hyman and the Matthews line — was the dream start on the road for the Leafs. At the other end, Jack Campbell maintained his undefeated streak in 2021 with a 26-save performance.
Game Day Quotes
Paul Maurice on Blake Wheeler’s status:
He was good at the morning skate and said he felt good. We’ll leave it to tonight to make sure that he returns feeling the same way. If he returns feeling the same way, then he’ll be a player for us.
Maurice on if Toronto’s PK is different to match up against than other teams:
They do have a number of players that kill [and] have excellent speed. If you’ve got a guy that really skates, they’re hard to catch. You’re still planning for success on your power play — you’re running what you want to run.
Our power play’s been really good — it’s set fairly low on the one unit, so the risk of a turnover is [higher]. More times than not, you’ll see it turn into a 2-on-1 where the top guy gets his stick on it and the weak side guy jumps, and we’re pressed really low. You see it more on [the first unit].
The other unit, because [Ehlers] runs a bit higher in what they’re doing, it doesn’t happen as often with those guys.
There’s no a significant style difference in the way Toronto kills as opposed to any other team. They do have speed.
Alex Galchenyuk on the motivation he gathers from the amount he’s bounced around the league:
It’s not like it’s the foundation — that I’ve been with a few teams, so that’s why I’m motivated. I train well all summer and I’m prepared for a big year. Sometimes things don’t work out, but you stick with it.
Galchenyuk on what makes the Leafs a winning team:
I think just the balance of everything — our offense, solid defense, and we’ve been getting good goaltending as of late. Great group of guys — a mix of veterans and young guys. You can see what makes this team successful. You’ve got to stick with it and keep going.
Sheldon Keefe on starting the Tavares line at the beginning of each period:
Not a whole lot went into it. You make a decision every night on who you’re going to start. That line’s been playing well, so that was part of it. Galchenyuk, since he’s been a part of that line — really, since he’s come into our lineup — has been very consistent in his work habits and his details in his game. He’s very competitive and when the puck comes to him, he makes a play with it. He’s really helped the line for sure, but I think both John and Willy have been playing well [too].
Keefe on a best-on-best matchup approach against Winnipeg:
The main dynamic is that you’re playing against high-scorers. That line is definitely trying to score. They’re trying to look for their own chances in transition. You’ve got some opportunities offensively that might present themselves.
At the same time, you have to be that much more alert defensively. If the puck goes the other way, they’re so dangerous and they transition quick. That can pull away from some of your offense because you have to be mindful of it.
Keefe on the Copp-Lowry-Appleton line:
The Lowry line does it a little bit differently. They transition very well. They’ve got good speed on the wings. They challenge the net. They spend time in the offensive zone. It’s a challenge all around with how the depth goes all the way through their lineup.
Keefe on whether Travis Dermott has met expectations this season:
Yeah, I think so. I know that there’s focus at times when he doesn’t play a lot, but I don’t look at that as a great representation of how we feel about his season. We’ve looked at it, and in a lot of ways, he’s been the sixth defenseman. Sometimes, with the way the game goes — whether it’s special teams, matchups, the score — you tend to shorten the bench, and it’s usually the sixth defenseman that gets caught up in that a little bit.
When we look at his game, there are definitely been really strong nights where it’s all come together. There are others where he’s been strong on the defensive side, but his work with the puck hasn’t been there. We look at the large sample, and he’s done what we’ve asked of him.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#97 Joe Thornton – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Jason Spezza
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #47 Pierre Engvall – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#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, Alexander Barabanov, Timothy Liljegren, Adam Brooks, Scott Sabourin, Veini Vehvilainen
Injured: Frederik Andersen
Winnipeg Jets Projected Lines
#25 Paul Stastny – #13 Pierre-Luc Dubois – #26 Blake Wheeler
#81 Kyle Connor – #55 Mark Schiefele – #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
#37 Connor Hellebuyck (starter)
#30 Laurent Brossoit