Now with just six games remaining in the 2020-21 schedule, the Toronto Maple Leafs own a nine-point lead over second place in the North Division entering their final game of the season series against Vancouver (7 p.m. EST, CBC).
With their win over Winnipeg last night, the Montreal Canadiens have given themselves a real shot at catching the struggling Jets in their remaining seven games. They trail Winnipeg by four points and currently possess a game in hand. Of course, the team that ends up in fourth will more than likely be the Leafs‘ matchup in the first round of the playoffs. Here are their complete first-round opponent odds from hockeyviz.com:
With their playoff spot solidified and their division title all but secured, the focus for Toronto shifts to finding their ideal playoff lineup for game one of the postseason.
Alex Galchenyuk’s emergence as a contributing forward on this roster has been a lift to the team’s overall depth up front, but despite his respectable points total (9-in-20 with Toronto) and his 58% xGF rating (fourth among regular Leaf forwards), will he fall victim to the numbers game once Zach Hyman returns?
Adam Brooks’ impressive play at center on the bottom line and his role on the penalty kill likely put him above Galchenyuk on the depth chart, while it’s unlikely that any of the bottom-six veterans will sit come playoff time. That could mean Galchenyuk is the 13th forward given his traditionally weak defensive game and lack of special teams role. It will be a very tough task, but it’s up to him to leave Sheldon Keefe with no choice but to keep him in the top 12 once Hyman (and potentially Riley Nash) enter the lineup.
Sticking with the forward lines, evaluating Nick Foligno as an option next to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner makes sense if Sheldon Keefe wants to run a Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Hyman line again for the playoffs, which is a third-line option he’s liked and turned to at different points. That said, will Sheldon Keefe take a look at Foligno on a line with John Tavares and William Nylander at some point, establishing some familiarity there should Hyman slot in on the top line?
On defense, despite a solid debut on Thursday, barring injuries, Ben Hutton is unlikely to move his way up the depth chart past the likes of Rasmus Sandin or Travis Dermott before the playoffs begin. With Zach Bogosian still out at least another three weeks, it’s possible that he’ll miss out on at least part of the first round, meaning Sandin and Dermott will make up the Leafs bottom pair in round one.
Regardless of Sandin’s impressively stellar play as of late, Dermott plays an equally important role with Bogosian out as he eats up a good chunk of the veteran’s penalty-killing minutes. The pairing’s ability to gel in Toronto’s final six games will be a storyline to watch as the Leafs are unlikely to turn to anyone else in that role before Bogosian returns, as much as Timothy Liljegren showed well in his season debut on Thursday.
In goal, Jack Campbell will start for Toronto having bounced back with three straight wins following his first two losses of the season. Campbell sports a sparkling 14-2-1 on the season with a 2.14 GAA and a .925 save percentage. Can the Leafs manage to work Frederik Andersen in for a start or two before the playoffs start, though?
For the Canucks, Thatcher Demko will start tonight after Braden Holtby took the reins in their last three meetings with the Leafs. Demko, like most of the Canucks’ roster, has been struggling as of late, giving up four or more goals in three of his last four games. Demko has impressively kept his numbers afloat despite Vancouver’s nightmare season, going 12-14-1 with a 2.62 GAA at a .918 save percentage, but he’s gotten no results since his team’s return from the Covid outbreak.
Game Day Quotes
Adam Brooks on the thrill of playing with Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza:
Those are obviously guys who are special players in this game and have been special players for a very long time. There’s still some “pinch me” moments out there, but we’ve kind of established our mentality of how we want to play as a line.
We talk quite a bit on the bench and quite a bit when things aren’t going well, just trying to get things back on track. They make things very easy. They tell you exactly what they want. It’s a lot of fun, and hopefully, we can just continue to play well with each other.
We’re a pretty focused line. We kind of just bounce everything off each other — whether there’s a play in the game that we feel like was there and the guy didn’t see it, or where we want to be in support of each other on the forecheck or in the defensive zone. When you’re talking, it’s pretty normal stuff, but I just find with those two, they have so much insight into the game and see so much that there is more talking, and I love it. It’s really easy to play with two guys like that.
[We talk a lot], whether it just be a hole in the defense, where they want you positioned on the breakout or in the offensive zone, where they want you popping to and moving around. I think all three of us see the ice pretty well and we’re able just to talk through that kind of stuff throughout the game — where we want to be positioned from one another, where you need to drive to when you have the puck, or just where they like to be on the ice. You get confortable putting it to a spot knwoning they’re going to be there.
Brooks on earning his spot in a lineup with a lot of depth at forward:
There was obviously a huge stretch of the season where I didn’t really see myself even coming back to this position. Just to be able to get into the lineup right now with some of the injuries… I’m just trying to make the most of my opportunity and trying to show that I can contribute when I get in there, whatever that situation may be.
It’s been good so far, but you can’t get complacent in this spot. You have to keep working every game, and that’s all I’m really focused on doing anytime I get on the ice.
Morgan Rielly on his impression of Rasmus Sandin:
He’s been outstanding, if you ask me — his patience with the puck, the way that he moves the puck, he jumps in at the right time. I mean, I thought he played great last year when he was in the lineup. This year, he’s been really impressive.
He was injured earlier and came back looking like he hasn’t missed a step. The one area of his game that I like a lot is just his patience with the puck. He holds onto it and makes plays, which is awesome to see from a young player.
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: Ben Hutton, Pierre Engvall, Timothy Liljegren, Michael Hutchinson
Injured: Frederik Andersen, Riley Nash, Zach Hyman, Zach Bogosian
Vancouver Canucks Projected Lines
*Jake Virtanen is a late scratch — these lines are unconfirmed*
#70 Tanner Pearson – #53 Bo Horvat – #78 Kole Lind
#36 Nils Hoglander – #9 JT Miller – #6 Brock Boeser
#64 Tyler Motte – #20 Brandon Sutter – #24 Jimmy Vesey
#15 Matthew Highmore – #72 Travis Boyd – #71 Zach Macewen
#88 Nate Schmidt – #57 Tyler Myers
#43 Quinn Hughes – #27 Travis Hamonic
#23 Alex Edler – #63 Jalen Chatfield
#35 Thatcher Demko (starter)
#49 Braden Holtby
Scratched: Jayce Hawryluk, Olli Juolevi, Jake Virtanen
Injured: Elias Pettersson, Micheal Ferland, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Justin Bailey