We got a possible preview of the Game 1 playoff lineup with the soon-to-return Riley Nash, Zach Hyman, and Nick Foligno all skating on regular units in Tuesday’s practice.

Sheldon Keefe was quick to caution us not to read too far into the lines, but newcomer Riley Nash was centering Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev on the third line, while Nick Foligno and Zach Hyman were flanking the power duos in the top six. The fourth line consisted of the veteran trio of Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and Wayne Simmonds.

With Nash’s defensive strengths and history of handling tough matchups when called upon in Boston or Columbus, when paired with Kerfoot and Mikheyev, Sheldon Keefe could aim for “nothing happens”-type shifts from this third-line trio. The line has scored an average of .3 points per game this season, but if they can make life hard on/neutralize some of the other team’s skill and take on some defensive-zone assignments as needed, it frees up a loaded top-six to — if all goes to planned, and it’s a good bet — win their matchups more often than not.

With Hyman and Foligno flanking the top two lines, both appear well balanced and neither would need to be protected, but it would give Keefe some real advantages if he can spot the Nash-centered third line against top-six opposition, freeing up his own top six to exploit mismatches situationally.

  • Hyman – Matthews – Marner: ~20-22 min range
  • Foligno – Tavares – Nylander: ~16-18 min range
  • Mikheyev – Nash – Kerfoot: ~13-15 min range
  • Simmonds – Spezza – Thornton: ~ 8-10 min range

The unknown is that we have seen exactly zero minutes of Nash — who is returning from a long-term injury, to boot — next to any Leafs player, while Foligno has spent his game reps mostly next to Matthews and Marner, not familiarizing himself with or building chemistry next to Tavares and Nylander. Best laid plans on paper may not play out as designed in the reality of game action, and we’ll have to see if these lines actually come to fruition in Game 1 of the playoffs.

The lineup above also leaves Alex Galchenyuk (four points in his last five games) and Pierre Engvall (three goals in his last three games) potentially on the outside looking in for Game 1, leaving a bottom six that might be pretty light on offense.

The difficulty for Galchenyuk is that his game is not particularly well suited for a bottom-six role in this Leafs lineup outside of possibly the sheltered fourth line, which is occupied by veterans Keefe is likely reluctant to scratch. An injury per round is typical in the playoffs, however, and the dynamic could shift based on the performance on these lines.

For instance, it’s possible, if a Nash-centered third line isn’t gelling quickly enough, that Keefe could turn to Hyman on L3 — Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Hyman has had success in spurts — or even move Foligno down there. Either scenario — Hyman to L3 & Foligno up to L1, or Foligno to L3 — opens a slot in the top six for Galchenyuk to jump back into his familiar spot next to Tavares and Nylander, where Galchenyuk hasn’t always been trustworthy defensively but has been reasonably productive.

In such a scenario, a Hyman-led third line would allow Keefe to run his Matthews line and his L3 against top competition, and use a Galchenyuk-Tavares-Nylander line more as a partially-sheltered scoring unit.

As for Pierre Engvall, after he scored in two games in a row (he’s made it three in a row since), Keefe suggested that the offense he’s produced of late is somewhat inconsequential in his evaluation process in terms of the specific things the head coach is demanding from Engvall more consistently, including his physical play and engagement in all three zones.

“Pierre has found a way to score in both of the last two games he has played for us here. That is great to see. That helps his confidence, of course. But the reality is that’s not why he hasn’t been playing here of late. It was nothing to do with production.

We need Pierre to be really competitive, physical on the puck, win puck battles, be strong defensively, and do the little things to help our team win. Any production that comes from that would be great. I just think he has so much more to give to our team outside of any offensive production. Until he finds that level, he is going to find himself continuing to search to see when his next opportunity might come.”

– Sheldon Keefe

The forward pairs Keefe has settled on are comprised of Matthews-Marner, Tavares-Nylander, and Spezza-Thornton, with a fluid third line situation (usually involving Kerfoot-Mikheyev) and the ability to rotate in various options on the open.  However it shakes out, what comes through loud and clear when dissecting all of the possible permutations is that there is an enviable amount of options and depth available to Keefe with a healthy complement of forwards, giving him the ability to adapt as circumstances change. That’s exactly the position a coach wants to find himself in entering the postseason. 

Frederik Andersen to start in Ottawa

Most critically, Sheldon Keefe confirmed today that the Leafs will get Frederik Andersen into game action before the end of the regular season with a start in Ottawa on Wednesday night.

Regardless of how the performances play out in the final couple of regular-season games, the Andersen vs. Campbell Game 1 starter debate is obviously a contrived one at this point. The decision has almost certainly already made to start with Campbell, who is the clear choice having won 17 of 21 starts, including six of his last seven (6-0-1, .932 save percentage).

Particularly with Campbell’s injury history, that doesn’t mean getting the team’s next-best goaltender up and running as best they can — i.e. getting Andersen some NHL game reps before the playoffs start — isn’t important ahead of the postseason run knowing Andersen hasn’t seen NHL action in nearly seven weeks.

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