The Maple Leafs will kick off their weekend back-to-back with a 6 p.m. puck drop against the undefeated San Jose Sharks tonight at Scotiabank Arena (TSN 4&5).
The context behind the rare 6 p.m. start according to Pierre LeBrun: The Leafs have been afforded the extra hour to fly into Pittsburgh tonight knowing they’ll need to clear customs across the border — not in Toronto — on their first Covid-era southern road trip as a team (the team last traveled to the U.S. for their trip to California in early March 2020). The Leafs’ first international roadie in 20 months will include stops in Pittsburgh, Carolina, and Chicago.
As for tonight’s game in Toronto, we’ll see something we rarely saw the Leafs do over the many years where their backup position was a game of musical chairs and they seemed to lose almost every time in the second game of a back-to-back: they’re giving their backup the more favourable start. Michael Hutchinson will make his season debut, with Petr Mrazek still out recovering from his groin injury and Jack Campbell starting tomorrow night in Pittsburgh.
The Leafs are fresh off of three days of rest while the Sharks are coming in tired from a game in Ottawa last night, a 2-1 win on goals from Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc with James Reimer in net. Playing their next game fewer than 20 hours after the previous one is an AHL schedule-like turnaround for the Sharks, who opened at home with a 4-3 win over Winnipeg followed by a 5-0 drubbing of the struggling Canadiens in Montreal on Tuesday.
The early-season results come despite the distraction of the off-ice saga surrounding their goal and points leader from last season in Evander Kane, who — just as he was cleared by the league’s investigation into alleged domestic abuse and allegedly gambling on his own games — was back in the news for a 21-game suspension related to a fake vaccine card.
The energy injected by Swedish rookies Jonathan Dahlen (two goals) and William Eklund (three points) plus special-teams success have been major factors in the Sharks’ 3-0-0 start. The San Jose PK is sitting at plus-one goal differential having killed all eight penalties so far. Five of the Sharks’ 11 goals through three games have come by way of the man advantage, and one has come shorthanded via Andrew Cogliano. Erik Karlsson has four power-play assists, while Kevin Labanc has ripped two cleanly by goalies with one-timers from the left circle.
After Reimer started in Ottawa, the Leafs will draw new acquisition Adin Hill as their goalie to beat tonight. The six-foot-six former Coyote has won both of his starts so far, including his first shutout as a Shark in the win over the Habs. The Sharks have given up just 25 shots per game to the three Canadian teams they’ve faced so far, and their goalie tandem of Hill and Reimer has stopped 95% of them.
The storyline tonight is going to center around whether the Leafs can start to turn more of their copious offensive-zone possession time and scoring opportunities into actual goals, however ugly the offense may need to be.
Coming off of frustrating showings in back-to-back playoff series where the team’s offense dried up at critical times against hot goalies, fans and the team itself seem through with the, “ran into a hot goalie, the percentages will rebound,” maxim. There is, of course, a real kernel of truth to it, but making their own luck is going to need to be the Leafs’ M.O. this season in terms of their 5v5 offense, particularly at playoff time (the other half of this puzzle is fixing a power play so that it’s converting at a rate commensurate with the offensive talent on the ice.)
The Leafs’ lines are expected to remain the same from Monday’s OT loss to New York.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge presented by the Sharks:
They’re playing with lots of confidence. I feel like they’ve found their team identity early and are rolling with it. They are playing really sound team defense as groups of five all over the rink. Their special teams have been very good. Those are the things you’re looking for early in the season to really get firing. They are right at the top of the league in all of those categories.
Keefe on his own team’s identity:
I feel like we have done good things in some areas, but a big piece of our team is executing on offense, and we haven’t done that. For both of our special teams, we are trying to find that as well. Getting Auston back for one game now, we are looking to take positive steps in that direction. But we aren’t where we want to be yet.
Keefe on how the team can set Hutchinson up for success:
Getting off to a good start would be good. Getting him the lead and some run support would be nice. How we defend, take care of the puck — we just have to play well in front of him.
John Tavares on Auston Matthews’ first game back:
Not too much out of the ordinary. He was very similar to his normal self. It’s impressive coming off of a significant injury like that, his ability to be so impactful right away. He has shown it in the past coming off of other injuries.
He is extremely diligent and meticulous in the way he goes about his business and gets himself ready to play. Nothing is surprising other than he didn’t put a couple in. It shouldn’t be too long before those opportunities are going in the net with his ability to do that consistently.
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:#30 Michael Hutchinson
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras: Michael Amadio
Injured/Out: Ilya Mikheyev, Petr Mrazek, Timothy Liljegren
San Jose Sharks Projected Lines
#54 Jonathan Dahlen – #39 Logan Couture – #28 Timo Meier
#72 William Eklund – #48 Tomas Hertl – #92 Rudolfs Balcers
#81 Matthew Nieto – #13 Nick Bonino – #62 Kevin Labanc
#11 Andrew Cogliano – #26 Jasper Weatherby – #18 Lane Pederson
#38 Mario Ferraro – #88 Brent Burns
#67 Jacob Middleton – #65 Erik Karlsson
#51 Radim Simek – #44 Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Starter: #33 Adin Hill
#47 James Reimer
Injured/Out: Nikolai Knyzhov