The Maple Leafs have two final regular-season games left to prepare for Game 1 vs. the Montreal Canadiens, starting with a visit to Ottawa tonight (8 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
It has clearly been a priority of Sheldon Keefe this season to find a trio of forwards capable of playing a shutdown role, drawing some of the matchup burden away from Tavares and Matthews lines while taking a high percentage of defensive-zone faceoffs.
Early on in the season, Keefe sampled a Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman line, but Hyman’s value further up the lineup made it difficult to keep him on L3 consistently. Even when he started on the third line, he would often join Matthews and Marner at different points in the night, particularly in the latter stages of games.
Later on, the ‘HEM’ line (Mikheyev-Engvall-Hyman) came to be while Alex Kerfoot moved up next to Tavares. Again, it wasn’t long until Hyman was needed elsewhere, while Pierre Engvall seemed to lose Keefe’s full trust as the season went on.
Yesterday in practice, Keefe teased us with an all-new L3 combination. Acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets four days before the Nick Foligno transaction, Riley Nash, soon to return from a knee injury, was centering Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev.
Particularly in the latter part of his career, Nash has embodied the archetype of ‘shutdown’ center — he is dead last in xGoals For/60 and xGoals Against/60 among all Blue Jackets players since 2019 (stats are score & venue adjusted and sourced from evolving-hockey.com). For better or for worse, not much happens when he is on the ice.
Nash has earned those numbers despite predictably lopsided zone usage. He started 71% of his shifts in the defensive zone this season. His starts the two previous seasons in Columbus were 53% and 70%.
While Nash’s debut will need to wait until the playoffs, all three of Nick Foligno, Justin Holl, and Frederik Andersen will return tonight.
Trumping all of the above storylines, Frederik Andersen will be making his first start since March 19th. Andersen’s well-documented conditioning stint in the AHL wasn’t exactly a statistical success — he saved 12 of 14 shots in his first half-game and 34 of 38 shots in a 5-4 shootout loss in his second start — but that wasn’t so much the goal as it was getting his health and conditioning back to where it needed to be for Andersen to make this return to the NHL crease.
There isn’t much to say regarding Andersen other than to acknowledge the importance of tonight’s game in terms of getting the team feeling confident in Andersen as a playoff option if/when needed. The Game 1 starting-goalie question is a fake debate at this point provided Jack Campbell stays healthy through his final regular-season appearance in Winnipeg on Friday, but hopefully, Andersen gains confidence from this experience and the opportunity to welcome Andersen back into the lineup with a W gives the team a little extra something to play for in an otherwise meaningless game.
Starting at the other end for Ottawa tonight will be Filip Gustavsson, who is one of five goalies to start at least six games for the Sens this year. He is the youngest among them at 22-years-old, and the only one with a save percentage above .910. He started in Ottawa’s last win on Saturday against Winnipeg and came in as relief in their blowout loss the next night, giving up two goals in 30 minutes. Overall, Gustavsson is 4-1-2 on the season with a .932 SV%.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the team’s mindset for their final two regular-season games:
I would say it’s very strong. Even when we clinched the division the other night, the guys were happy, of course, but you could just sense that there was unfinished business and that it was part of the process but certainly not the goal.
We’ve had a couple of great practices leading up to today. It’s been very business-like in terms of our approach coming in here. Like I said, there are two games coming up on the schedule, and there’s an opportunity for us to continue climbing in the league standings.
Keefe on how he’ll manage his lineup going into the playoffs:
[The expectation] is we’re going to get Jack in on Friday. Just like all our players, we’re looking to get everybody as ready as possible here, whether they’re players that are healthy and available to play tonight or the guys that are still working their way back to being game ready. We’ve got to have that focus.
I’ll probably manage the minutes a little differently than I would in other types of games, but at the same time, it’s a good chance for us to really work at our four-line game and get things moving with the entire group.
Keefe on Ben Hutton’s fit with the team so far:
[He’s] a positive guy. He has a smile on his face. He fits in very well with his teammates. Being a guy that’s played almost 400 games in the NHL and has great experience, he’s not come in with any sort of expectation on how much he should play or anything like that. Rather, he’s just taken advantage of his practise reps and game reps.
Tonight is another opportunity for him to work himself into our group and show how he fits in with us. We like a lot about what he brings from a personality standpoint, his overall attitude, and just the fact that he’s come in a contributed. It shows that he’s a very versatile guy and that’s exactly what you want to have in a player that you acquired.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines*
*offiical lines TBD, optional morning skate
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#71 Nick Foligno – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#97 Joe Thornton – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Ben Hutton – #23 Travis Dermott
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras/Taxi: Rasmus Sandin, David Rittich, Adam Brooks, Pierre Engvall
Injured: Zach Bogosian, Riley Nash, Zach Hyman
Ottawa Senators Projected Lines
#7 Brady Tkachuk – #9 Josh Norris – #19 Drake Batherson
#13 Nick Paul– #37 Colin White – #63 Evgenii Dadonov
#18 Tim Stutzle – #57 Shane Pinto – #28 Connor Brown
#10 Ryan Dzingel – #71 Chris Tierney – #85 Vitaly Abramov
#98 Victor Mete – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#26 Erik Brannstrom – #2 Artem Zub
#52 Olle Alsing – #48 Jacob Bernard-Docker
#31 Anton Forsberg (starter)
#32 Filip Gustavsson
Injured: Matt Murray, Joey Daccord, Derek Stepan, Austin Watson, Thomas Chabot, Josh Brown