After a successful back-to-back in which they outscored Montreal 6-1 and earned a 3-1 series lead, the Maple Leafs have an opportunity tonight to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2004 (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
While it might have been the Habs’ worst effort of the series in Game 4 — they appeared to be a team out of answers, one whose will seemed broken in the third period while down 3-0 — it’s rarely easy to deliver the final kill shot in the NHL playoffs. The Leafs players that were around in 2018-19 will know this all too well, having failed to capitalize on a 3-2 series lead in Game 6 on home ice against the Bruins that Spring.
Thankfully, the Leafs have more cushion this time around at 3-1, but taking care of business tonight is preferable for a multitude of reasons. On top of the fact that you never want to provide an opponent with new hope/life in the form of an opportunity on home ice to force a Game 7, most Cup teams historically have benefitted from at least one quick series win. There is also something to be said for the statement it would make if the Leafs could complete a gentleman’s sweep against their oldest rivals for their first series win in 17 years.
In terms of lineup notes, with Nick Foligno set to sit out again for tonight’s game, the Galchenyuk-Kerfoot-Nylander line will look to build on a fantastic Game 4 performance.
Thrown into the playoffs next to a new centerman as the Leafs tried to adapt without their captain John Tavares, Galchenyuk struggled at times to string plays together in Games 2 and 3, but he and his line broke out in a big way in Game 4. Galchenyuk’s playmaking off the rush came through for two clutch assists on goals involving his linemates Alex Kerfoot and William Nylander, who are playing some of the most complete hockey of their Leaf careers.
Further down the lineup, it was also another successful night possession-wise for Pierre Engvall’s line alongside Ilya Mikheyev and Wayne Simmonds. While Engvall’s play after sitting in Game 1 has probably been the biggest talking point, both Simmonds and Mikheyev have brought solid performances to the table in this series thus far. On top of the edge and swagger he has brought to the proceedings, Simmonds has spent a lot of time in the offensive zone, owning the highest shot-attempts/60 rating and outputting an overall xG rating of 65%. Mikheyev has surrendered the second-fewest xGoalsAgainst/60 with an overall rating of 72%*.
Even without any point production from those three in this series as of yet, a third-line trio that can play solid defense, play with an edge, spend time in the offensive zone, and draw the odd penalty helps set up the top two lines for success offensively.
The lone lineup change in store for Toronto is the return of Rasmus Sandin after Sheldon Keefe mixed in Travis Dermott for a game in a back-to-back scenario in Game 4. Adam Brooks appears to be staying in the lineup, with Riley Nash skating as an extra this morning.
On the Habs side of things, more changes are in store for tonight. While they practiced today with the same forward lines they started with in Game 4, Ducharme has been quick to blend on the fly and could end up throwing a different lineup at the Leafs after a very disappointing Game 4 showing.
On the blue line, Dominique Ducharme has confirmed that Erik Gustafsson will enter the lineup on the third pair next to Jon Merrill. If you polled the online Habs community, it’s likely they would have Romanov filling that spot instead of Merrill, but there is continued resistance among the Habs brass to get their 21-year-old rookie into playoff action.
Romanov was the Habs’ best puck mover in the defensive zone this season by far, completing 53% of his zone exits with possession while all of Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson, Jeff Petry, and Ben Chiarot were under 45%**. Montreal hasn’t possessed the puck very much this series, making it all the more bizarre considering Gustafsson doesn’t necessarily help them in that regard. He was third last in possession exits among Flyers defensemen this year at 37%, and he also finished with the third-highest failed exit percentage in the entire NHL.
Ducharme’s reasoning for getting Gustafsson into the lineup started and ended with the power play, where he played second unit minutes with the Flyers this season. With Petry already playing a ton and Weber often occupying a shooting role, it’s understandable that Ducharme would want another puck mover up top on the power play. At the same time, Gustafsson’s struggles at even-strength makes this a bit of a head-scratching move (it’s also noteworthy that Kulak played the third-most minutes at five-on-five in Game 4) in a series riddled with them from the Habs’ coaching staff.
*score and venue adjusted and sourced from evolving-hockey.com
**zone exit data from Corey Sznajder
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the opportunity his team has to win a series for the first time in 17 years:
Pushing through this is an important step, no doubt. Like I said yesterday, we recognize the opportunity that we have and need to push through this step. At the same time, my job as a coach here tonight is just to keep the guys focused on the things that we’ve done to give us success in this series and continue to clean up the areas [where] we need to do better because we can play better in a lot of areas still.
Keefe on where his team needs to improve the most to finish off the series:
I think our play through the neutral zone, both with and without the puck, is an area to focus on the last few games. I thought we had some real positive steps in that in Game 4, but there’s a lot of areas we could be better in there.
I think we’ve done a good job, obviously, in the second period, but our first period we want to look to assert ourselves better. Of course, in the third period, we’ve defended really well in the last couple of games, especially [last game]. In fact, the third period [last game] was the least amount of scoring chances we gave up in the game, but the shots were too lopsided, and we’re not spending enough time with the puck.
Keefe on the progress that the power play has made in the series:
Well, the puck’s gone in the net for us a few times, so that’s good. It went in [last game] for us, which was a huge goal at that time. I think we’ve had more pucks arriving to the net, and we’ve had more time in the offensive zone — that’s probably the biggest one here.
With that time in the offensive zone, we’ve been hitting the net, but it’s still an area where I think we can be a lot better. We were better at home ice than we were in Montreal in terms of our process. Part of that is Montreal adjusted and their penalty kill did a good job against us but we still found a way to get an important goal — it was really big for us in Game 2.
You can see some confidence coming there on our powerplay and that’s a very good thing for us.
Dominique Ducharme on bringing Erik Gustafsson into the lineup and taking Brett Kulak out:
We’re aware of where our guys are right now and what they can bring. We feel that we need help on the power play, and we feel that [that’s] one thing that [Kulak] is good at is skating the puck, but Gustafsson is good at moving the puck [too].
We’re going to manage the game — there’s 60 minutes that we need tonight, and we need to be consistent as a team. It’s not Gustafsson that’s going to win the game. It cannot be one guy tonight — it’s got to be everyone.
We can put the focus [the bottom pair], we can put the focus on one guy up front, or one guy in net — tonight [it’s about] 20 guys wearing a jersey.
Ducharme on generating more opportunities near the Toronto net:
[We need to be] more dynamic. I find that we’re too easy to check, and when you’re too easy to check, it’s harder to get back at the net to get a second chance. It’s hard to create — at times we’re there, but without the puck, we need to get quicker getting [to the net]. The guy with the puck needs to be more dynamic, too.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #47 Pierre Engvall– #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
#36 Rasmus Sandin – #22 Zach Bogosian
#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#31 Frederik Andersen
Extras/Taxi: Travis Dermott, Riley Nash, David Rittich, Denis Malgin, Ben Hutton, Martin Marincin
Injured: John Tavares, Nick Foligno
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
#90 Tomas Tatar – #24 Phillip Danault – #11 Brendan Gallagher
#73 Tyler Toffoli – #14 Nick Suzuki – #22 Cole Caufield
#41 Paul Byron – #15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #17 Josh Anderson
#40 Joel Armia – #21 Eric Staal – #94 Corey Perry
#44 Joel Edmundson – #26 Jeff Petry
#8 Ben Chiarot – #6 Shea Weber
#32 Erik Gustafsson – #28 Jon Merrill
#31 Carey Price (starter)
#34 Jake Allen
Extras/Taxi: Cayden Primeau, Michael Frolik, Brett Kulak, Xavier Ouellet
Injured/Out: Jonathan Drouin, Jake Evans, Artturi Lehkonen