With just nine games remaining in the regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs can put the North Division race a little more out of reach with a regulation victory over Winnipeg tonight (7 p.m. EST, CBC & Sportsnet).
It wouldn’t be totally over — not with one more head-to-head matchup remaining on the docket — but with a win, it would be a comfortable eight-point cushion for the Leafs to take into the final stretch.
After the Jets starter was pulled for just the second time this season, the Leafs have to enter this rematch planning to face a much sharper Connor Hellebuyck tonight. He gave up three goals on six shots against the Leafs on Thursday after allowing three on 25 shots in the game previous against Edmonton, but a cursory glance at Hellebuyck’s game log this season makes it very apparent how rarely the Vezina winner allows a blip like this to turn into a slump.
Thursday’s loss wasn’t all on him by any means — the Leafs potted some nice goals in the opening frame — but Hellebuyck holds the third-best Goals Above Expected total in the league this season and the best overall since 2019 for a reason.
Despite having the lead for almost the entire game, Sheldon Keefe clearly indicated that he thinks the Leafs will need to be better tonight after they didn’t own the puck as much on Saturday as they have for most of the season series.
The focus for the Leafs’ head coach was very much on how the team competes between the whistles physically, as Keefe did not take the bait when asked about some of the shenanigans and post-game chatter from the last contest:
“I still feel like we need to be more physical, but when I say that, you are probably thinking of some of the non-sense that happens after the whistles. I am not concerned about that. I am talking about being physical on the puck, physical on defense — those are the things I am looking for. We have areas to grow there still.
At times, we have done it very well as a team, but we are looking to be better in that regard. That is not just players like Simmonds, Foligno, Bogosian, Muzzin. With everybody on our team, we are looking to do a better job of being physical in the things that really matter in the game — protecting the puck, winning the puck, creating space for yourself, defending your net, defending space, creating space. That is the physicality we really need.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the physical battles in the last game
Regardless, we’re all curious to see if any bad blood spills over from the Adam Lowry injury or the Joe Thornton hit on Mathieu Perreault. As they say, Saturday night’s alright for fighting.
Thornton has been given a slap on the wrist by the DoPS, Simmonds has given a piece of his mind, and Paul Maurice says the Leafs might need part-time jobs after today's fine.
Maybe we finally have some bad blood forming here in the North Division?https://t.co/sYZfin9luV
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) April 23, 2021
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Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on how Nick Foligno’s first few days with the team have gone:
Nothing but positive. [It] really helps shorten that transition period when you’ve got that level of character, confidence, personality — all those things. It was really evident, even in the meal room when we got here in Winnipeg — just seeing how comfortable he is. He’s excellent.
Those are all things that you expected because you observed him, you do your research, and ask around with some guys that have played with him. He’s been around the league a long time, so that’s what you expect and that’s what he brought the other night.
We obviously expect, as he continues to adjust, that to [become] an even greater factor. He certainly helps us in a lot of areas that aren’t just on the ice.
Keefe on the adjustments that need to be made down the stretch:
We’ll just continue to do the things that we’ve done all season in terms of our preparation and our discussion. I think they recognize that [we’re] getting real close to an opportunity to compete in the playoffs. First, we have to secure our place in the playoffs, but the guys know it’s the most important and best time of year around the corner. We haven’t liked our results here for the last little while, save the other night.
We feel like we’ve played good hockey, but good isn’t enough — you need to find a way to get on the right side of games. No matter the circumstances in the game, there are things that can be done to give you the best opportunity to win. We’re building towards putting together as close to perfect games as we can — not an easy thing to do, particularly with the schedule being what it is and the level of competition that we’re playing.
Keefe on Travis Dermott’s season:
With [Bogosian] out, [he’ll] get more of an opportunity on the penalty kill — we expect him to fill that void there when he gets the chance. He’s done that at different times and he’s done it well, so we need that for sure.
He needs to be comfortable on the right side here for a stretch. Those are all little adjustments we need to make to his game. I think he’s had times where he’s played very well and maybe should have played a little bit more, then he’s had times where he was trying to find himself and should have played a little less. We’re looking for some consistency in that area, but every player is looking for more opportunity and injury creates opportunity — so whether it’s he or Sandin, the opportunity is there.
In terms of Dermott, what we’re looking for from him is to be a guy that really helps us on our breakout, get back for pucks, get us moving in the right direction, have a real tight gap, be physical, and keep guys away from our net.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#71 Nick Foligno – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#97 Joe Thornton – #77 Adam Brooks – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #23 Travis Dermott
#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#33 David Rittich
Extras/Taxi: Joey Duszak, Martin Marincin, Veini Vehvilainen, Timothy Liljegren, Pierre Engvall, Stefan Noesen, Nick Robertson
Injured: Frederik Andersen, Riley Nash, Zach Hyman, Zach Bogosian
Winnipeg Jets Projected Lines
#25 Paul Stastny – #13 Pierre-Luc Dubois – #27 Nikolaj Ehlers
#81 Kyle Connor – #55 Mark Schiefele – #26 Blake Wheeler
#9 Andrew Copp – #17 Adam Lowry – #82 Mason Appleton
#85 Mathieu Perreault – #11 Nate Thompson – #23 Trevor Lewis
#44 Josh Morrisey – #3 Tucker Poolman
#24 Derek Forbort – #4 Neal Pionk
#8 Jordie Benn – #2 Dylan Demelo
#37 Connor Hellebuyck (starter)
#30 Laurent Brossoit
Injured: Nathan Beaulieu, Bryan Little