The Maple Leafs are looking to get back above .500 with their third win in a row when they host a heavily banged-up Vegas Golden Knights team tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. EST, TSN4).
No William Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Alex Tuch, Nolan Patrick, or Mattias Janmark leaves the Golden Knights without four of their top six and six of their top nine. They’re so thin at the forward position that it appears Michael Amadio, claimed off of waivers from the Leafs over the weekend, will step in as their 3C tonight against his former squad.
The challenge for the Leafs tonight: They’re going to play against a Vegas team that has its defense (outside of Zach Whitecloud) and starting goalie healthy, and, if the team’s history under Pete DeBoer is any indication, is going to have a shorthanded forward group bought into playing the right way structurally against a superior opponent — organized on the forecheck, checking back with numbers above the puck in transition, making it hard on the Leafs to generate much through the neutral zone. Despite the injuries piling up, Vegas has won three consecutive games.
That makes it a particularly interesting obstacle for a Leafs team that has talked recently about wanting to generate more offense through playing faster in transition, something defenseman TJ Brodie mentioned this morning. There has been a methodical pace to the Leafs‘ breakouts and transition play that has not always lent itself well to quick-strike offense off of the rush. Puck possession time has been ample for the Leafs in most of their games to date, but when a lot of it is spent with the other team set in its structure in the defensive and neutral zones, it makes a defense — and goalie — harder to break down, which is reflected in the Leafs’ mediocre 5v5 scoring rates.
Paired with a struggling power play, that is why the Leafs haven’t scored like a team that invests so heavily in its scoring talent should (2.33 goals/game, 27th in the NHL). It’s a little more nuanced than a simple case of, “do the same things and regression to the mean will take care of the rest.” Lack of shooting luck plays its role, of course, but on-ice shooting percentage can also be a symptom of the types of chances a team is creating, not just the bounces working against the shooters.
The Leafs’ lineup will remain unchanged from Saturday night outside of the return of Jack Campbell to the crease. A rested Vegas outfit, no matter how shorthanded by injuries, should provide a good test of the team’s new defense pairs compared to a tired Red Wings team (that still managed to put four past the Leafs) on Saturday night.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the Bunting – Matthews – Nylander line:
I feel like they had some good opportunities to score offensively. I think they have been a little bit disconnected defensively, and as a result, they spend more time on our half of the ice than we’d like them to or they would like to. That is the focus: just getting them dialed in on the details defensively and in those transitions when we don’t have the puck.
Offensively, I am not concerned. Even on a night [vs. Detroit] that I wouldn’t describe as their best night, they still had plenty of looks. Auston had plenty of looks, especially in the second and third periods. There are lots of good ingredients to that line, but I don’t think we have seen it play to its potential yet.
Part of it is a line coming together, and part of it is the three players playing at their best. If we look at the Tavares line, part of why the line is starting to work is that the players are working and competing. That helps the line go when everybody is playing well and is dialed-in in all areas.
Keefe on the challenge presented by a banged-up Vegas team:
There are a lot of guys missing that you are accustomed to seeing in Vegas, but what stands out is how they play together as a group. Their defense group is virtually intact here. You see that group, how they move, how active they are on the offensive side, how they join, and how they close gaps.
You see how they play without the puck, how they transition back into defense, the way they track and reload, and the effort that is put in on the defensive side. If anything, when you take out some of their top players that are missing, you end up with a lot of the guys who played lower in the lineup and have those great intangibles and details who are playing more now.
That part of the game becomes a little more difficult. Plus, you bring in guys from the minors who are doing everything they can to please and show well. It is a hungry team that has shaken off a tough start earlier in the season and seems to have found their groove.
They have been in Toronto preparing for a couple of days. We expect them, despite the guys they have out, to be really good. That is a sign of a really good team. That is certainly what they are and have established themselves as over the last number of years in the league.
Keefe on how close the team’s game is to where he wants it to be:
I don’t think we are close yet. I think we have shown signs of life here for sure. We have another level to get to. We showed some real positive progress — well, I wouldn’t say progress, but through camp and preseason, we felt good about where we were at with a lot of the habits and things we established last season.
Since we started playing the games for real, they haven’t been to the same level. Part of that is us. Part of that is the opponent and the competition pushing back. We have seen signs of life here in the last couple of nights, but we are seeking consistency as a group, and we are not there yet.
Keefe on TJ Brodie’s mixed performances to start the season:
He set a high standard for himself last season. That is the standard he has set for himself in the league. I don’t think he has played to that level yet. I do think, in the last couple of games, he has been certainly better. He expects a lot of himself.
I know he looked at his role on the team last season and felt he could provide a little more offensively. He has been trying to get involved a little bit more — get in the rush, be involved in the offensive zone. There is a little bit of a balance that goes with that.
He really did play a little bit more as a safety guy last season. We are looking for him to find that balance. I know he is working towards it. I think the last couple of games have been more reflective of what we get from Brods.
In terms of his demeanour and his approach every day, that remains the same. He is playing his 700th game tonight, and a lot of that — to get to this point — is because he has consistently been who he is. If he has a good night or a bad night, he shows up the next day and he is the same person. That level of consistency that you get from a guy emotionally is a really important thing when you are looking for longevity in the league.
TJ Brodie on the areas in which the Leafs defense is looking to improve:
One thing that we have been trying to concentrate on is our gaps. It is a timing issue and sometimes tough to adjust to. When you want to be up tighter, sometimes you end up getting beat. And the pace of play — we want to play quick. Instead of building things, try to get it up to the forward’s hands as quickly as we can.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kampf – #25 Ondrej Kase
#20 Nick Ritchie – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #23 Travis Dermott
#8 Jake Muzzin – #78 TJ Brodie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#35 Petr Mrazek
Extras: Justin Holl
Injured: Ilya Mikheyev
Vegas Golden Knights Projected Lines
#81 Jonathan Marchessault – #20 Chandler Stephenson – #19 Reilly Smith
#28 Will Carrier – #10 Nicolas Roy – #18 Peyton Krebs
#63 Evgenii Dadonov – Michael Amadio – #55 Keegan Kolesar
#21 Brett Howden – #15 Jake Leschyshyn – #46 Jonas Rondbjerg
#14 Nicolas Hague – #7 Alex Pietrangelo
#23 Alec Martinez – #27 Shea Theodore
#3 Brayden McNabb – #52 Dylan Coghlan
Starter: #90 Robin Lehner
#39 Laurent Brossoit
Injured: William Karlsson, Alex Tuch, Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Zach Whitecloud, Mattias Janmark, Nolan Patrick