Following their final three-day break of the regular season, the Maple Leafs get set for a probable first-round preview matchup against the Montreal Canadiens, who are struggling in the month of April but remain firmly in possession of the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division (8 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
The last month has not been kind to the Canadiens. Since winning their first two games back from an impromptu 10-day break at the end of March, the Habs have dropped 9-of-14 games through April, losing by a margin of three or more goals in six of those games.
As a result, Montreal’s goal share has dropped to 26th in the NHL (42.6%), while their once-vaunted shot-based metrics have fallen off as well, although not as dramatically. In April, they sit 20th in xGF% and 15th in CF% — a far cry from where they were January through March when they ranked second in both metrics*.
*Stats are score and venue adjusted and sourced from evolving-hockey.com
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Obviously, as it has for a number of clubs across the league, the grind and bizarre nature of this season’s schedule have made life a lot more difficult on the Habs. Brendan Gallagher has been out since the first week of this month, while Jonathan Drouin missed Monday’s game and will remain out indefinitely for personal reasons. Paul Byron, who also missed Monday’s game, will be a game-time decision along with Tomas Tatar.
With so much uncertainty brought on by those injuries, it’ll be tough to know what Montreal will look like upfront or how the minutes will be divided across their lineup. Since taking over, interim head coach Dominique Ducharme has deployed his lineup quite differently depending on who was available to him and how his top players were performing.
In the first of their three-game series against the Flames this past week, all Habs forwards played between 13-18 minutes at five-on-five, while all of Evans, Lehkonen, Staal, and Armia played fewer than 10 minutes at evens in game three of the series on Monday.
In the event that both Tatar and Byron miss out tonight, the typically-balanced Habs will run with one of their more top-heavy groups of the season. Philip Danault and Josh Anderson have played the important minutes together as of late and will likely match up against the Matthews line with Artturi Lehkonen on their left wing. Their second line looks to be the only one staying intact from Monday’s game, with rookie Cole Caufield on the wing next to Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli.
In net, Jake Allen will start for Montreal while Carey Price still recovers from injury, and Jack Campbell will start for the Leafs as he looks to earn his third straight win after two consecutive losses put a stop to his 11-0 run to start the season. Campbell will likely back up David Rittich tomorrow when Toronto plays their second game in two nights against Vancouver.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the possibility of a Leafs-Habs first-round series:
I’m only focused on tonight’s game here. We need to be a whole lot better than the last time we were in this building. We’ve got to take it one day and one game at a time here. Let’s not get carried away. Let’s just focus on the remaining games here. It starts with this one.
Keefe on what his team has done well against Montreal this season:
I think we’ve done a good job just to limit the chances we’ve given up through the neutral zone and on the rush. We’ve taken care of the puck and those kinds of things. The games have been quite close and they’ve had their way with us at different times, too. Each game I think is its own animal and we just have to make sure we’re ready from the start here today. We weren’t the last time we were in this building.
Keefe on scouting rookie Cole Caufield:
I’m pretty familiar with him. I watched him play against the Marlies not too long ago and watched him play the other night. Exciting young player — obviously, he [can] score if you give him the opportunity to. They have some other guys very similar to that — if they get open and get in behind, they’re dangerous and can score. We just have to make sure we do our job to take away those opportunities.
Keefe on pushing his team to be more physical:
You need your leaders to lead the way. We need our guys, especially those who are lower in the lineup, to really take on that responsibility and know it’s part of their job getting fewer minutes. Everybody, all through the lineup no matter where you’re playing, [needs] to engage physically.
As I’ve said before, it’s not just about running around and things like that. This is a contact sport and you can use contact to gain and maintain advantages on the ice. That’s where we need to make sure we’re engaged.
Keefe on what Alex Galchenyuk needs to improve on down the stretch:
Just a little more of his details defensively. I’m not overly concerned about anything offensively. I think [Tavares] and [Nylander] have done a really good job of finding ways to contribute consistently here for us, but Alex on that line has got to do a lot of the work — he’s got to skate both ways, forecheck, turn back to our end, and be really responsible defensively when it’s his turn.
He hasn’t played poorly by any means. He was playing a really high level for a stretch of time, and that’s a difficult thing to maintain. Most players come down from that — if not all players a little bit. We want to just make sure that he’s focused and continues to know that we believe in him.
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
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
#62 Artturi Lehkonen – #24 Philip Danault – #17 Josh Anderson
#73 Tyler Toffoli – #14 Nick Suzuki – #22 Cole Caufield
#94 Corey Perry – #15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #40 Joel Armia
#21 Eric Staal – #71 Jake Evans – #67 Michael Frolik
#8 Ben Chiarot – #6 Shea Weber
#44 Joel Edmundson – #26 Jeff Petry
#28 Jon Merrill – #27 Alexander Romanov
#34 Jake Allen (starter)
#30 Cayden Primeau
Injured: Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Carey Price
Game-Time Decision: Paul Byron, Tomas Tatar