After competing in an all-Canadian division last season and enduring six exhibition contests and three regular-season games against the same two teams (Habs & Sens), the Maple Leafs are finally facing off against a U.S opponent for the first time since August 2020 as they host the New York Rangers tonight in Toronto (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Not only will the Leafs be seeing an American opponent for the first time in over a calendar year, but reigning Rocket Richard winner Auston Matthews will also play in his first game since undergoing surgery on his wrist in the offseason.
The Leafs were in a bit of an awkward situation when it came to managing their top six and top power play without Matthews fully available. With their star players skating but avoiding taking contact and unable to participate in exhibition games, the team balanced finding new combinations while preparing for his eventual return.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Matthews’ return will be the opportunity to see the team’s top power-play unit at full strength. Mitch Marner, under new special teams lead Spencer Carbery, has made move to the middle and is no longer the main puck handler on the half wall in-zone. Even as the regular season began without Matthews, it was Jason Spezza that moved onto the top unit on the right flank, allowing Marner some reps in his new role, where he hasn’t necessarily looked fully comfortable through three games. We can’t really get a conclusive read on the overall dynamic of the unit, though, without both of the team’s highly dangerous shooters on the outside in Matthews and William Nylander, and until Marner is given some time to adjust.
At 5v5, Matthews’ return means four new line combinations up front based on Sunday’s practice lines, as he slots in between Marner and Nick Ritchie, while John Tavares reunites with William Nylander on a line with Michael Bunting. Alex Kerfoot moves to the wing on the checking line with David Kampf and Ondrej Kase, bumping Pierre Engvall onto the fourth line with Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds. Michael Amadio will be in the press box as the extra forward.
With Petr Mrazek’s groin pull leaving him out at least a couple of weeks, Jack Campbell has the opportunity to continue running with the crease for the time being. However, with a back-to-back looming this Friday-Saturday where they play in Toronto on Friday and in Pittsburgh on Saturday, third-stringer Michael Hutchinson may get the nod for one of those starts. The Leafs don’t have another back-to-back after that until the middle of November.
In the Rangers’ net, the young goalie tandem of 25-year-olds Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev is their biggest X-factor this season. Both goalies missed time with injuries in 2021, but it was Shesterkin who started 31 games to Georgiev’s 18 as they finished the season with .915 and .905 save percentages, respectively.
Tonight, it will be Shesterkin who receives the start as he attempts to run away with a starting role in a competitive tandem. Shesterkin has started the Rangers’ OT loss to Dallas and their 3-1 win in Montreal on Saturday, stopping 54 of 58 shots in total.
Offensively, Chris Kreider is responsible for half of the Rangers’ six goals through three games as the likes of Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad are still looking to get themselves in the goal-scoring column in the early going.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on how he views this year’s Rangers team:
They’re a good team that has a nice balance of established veteran NHL players, but also young guys that are very talented and skilled — that’s really what stands out. It’s early in the season, so you don’t really have a sample in terms of watching them and their identity and that coming out, but you can definitely see things [Gallant] brought over from Vegas and how that’s fitting in with their group.
I think forecheck and pressure is a big part of it, attacking the net — those are the things that stand out to me.
Keefe on the impact of Auston Matthews returning to the lineup:
Well, it just makes us a deeper team — that’s the biggest thing that I like. Playing without him and Mikheyev obviously changes our group a lot, but we thought our guys have done a good job in their absences. Having Auston back here today, everybody slots in a little differently.
We talked this morning — the opportunity for us is to continue to do the things that we were doing. We know what [Auston] means to our team and we know we’re a better team with his presence there, but the individuals and the group and what we’re asking our team to do doesn’t change no matter who is in or out.
Keefe on working on the power play during camp without Matthews:
That’s been the one area we want to improve in greatly, looking back to last season. It’s been an increased challenge to do so with not having the preseason games and even minimal practice reps with Auston’s presence. We’ve tried to sort of mimick it and keep the handedness of the players [the same] — Mikheyev is a left shot and played a lot in that spot.
We’re anxious to get it together here today and build from there.
Keefe on how Rasmus Sandin has earned a regular role despite his lack of experience:
It speaks to his talent and the maturity that we’ve spoken about being beyond his years. I coached him with the Marlies as an 18-year-old, and he stepped right in fresh out of junior hockey and was running our power play. He looked he had played in the league for a real long time. You see that here now as well.
I agree that, as you’re becoming a more competitive team, it becomes harder for younger players to come in, but at the same time, that’s your greatest challenge as an organization. You want to draft and develop young players that can come in here quickly so that they can contribute.
Keefe on how Nick Ritchie is fitting in thus far:
Nick is a player that’s really important to us and that I’m trying to get as familiar as I can with. It’s one thing to watch him in another jersey with a different team and different structure and all that — when he’s in our system and structure it’s a whole different thing. He’s a guy I’m watching very closely — I think he can take some real steps in his game offensively.
At the same time, I think he’s done some very underrated things that have gone unnoticed. When he gets the puck as a big guy, very often the next play is going to one of our sticks — that’s an underrated but extremely important piece to playing with good players.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#20 Nick Ritchie – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#58 Michael Bunting – #91 John Tavares– #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #64 David Kampf – #25 Ondrej Kase
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #23 Travis Dermott
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Extras: Michael Amadio
Injured/Out: Ilya Mikheyev, Petr Mrazek, Timothy Liljegren
New York Rangers Projected Lines
#13 Alex Lafreniere – #93 Mika Zibanejad – #20 Chris Kreider
#10 Artemi Panarin – #72 Filip Chytil – #21 Barclay Goodrow
#91 Sammy Blais – #17 Kevin Rooney – #12 Julien Gauthier
#29 Dryden Hunt – #47 Morgan Barron – #75 Ryan Reaves
#55 Ryan Lindgren – #23 Adam Fox
#79 K’Andre Miller – 8 Jacob Trouba
#12 Patrik Nemeth – #64 Nils Lundkvist
Starter: #31 Igor Shesterkin
#40 Alexandar Georgiev
Injured/Out: Ryan Strome, Kappo Kakko