With Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott, Jason Spezza, and Mitch Marner all out of the lineup, a shorthanded Maple Leafs team will face a stiff test tonight against a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that has won 10 of its last 13 games (7 p.m. EST, TSN4).
Tampa Bay has scored enough to win during their current four-game winning streak despite missing two of their most talented forwards in Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. Isolating their last four games starting from the beginning of December, the Lightning actually remain just below the Maple Leafs in goals/60 while producing nearly identical xGF rates at five-on-five.
Both teams have continued to control play at an elite level, but the Lightning have enjoyed more recent success on account of their defensive play and red-hot goaltending. As Jack Campbell has — at least relative to his astronomical early-season numbers — begun to slightly regress, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been on a tear. His save percentage is .946 in his last five games, while backup Brian Elliot also stopped 38 of 39 in a win over Philly on Sunday.
On the whole, the Lightning have only given up seven goals in four games while allowing one goal on just five power-play opportunities against. They’ve also scored almost exclusively at even-strength, with only two of their 17 goals coming on the man-advantage during their four-game winning streak.
In terms of lineup notes, Anthony Cirelli will be a game-time decision for the Lightning. Cirelli suffered a minor injury Tuesday vs. Montreal and would cause quite the trickle-down effect if he’s missing from the lineup tonight. Already without Brayden Point, Tampa losing another experienced centerman would leave a lot of slack to pick up for their depth center options in Ross Colton, the recently-claimed Riley Nash, and Pierre-Edouard Bellmare.
Outside of Cirelli being questionable, the Lightning will run the same lineup as Tuesday vs. Montreal. As mentioned, Point and Kucherov remain out, while Erik Cernak will miss a second straight game. For the Leafs, Alex Steeves and Kristian Rubins’ solid debut performances will earn them both another look tonight against stiffer opposition.
Sheldon Keefe said this morning that Travis Dermott is closest to a return out of the unavailable players right now, while Petr Mrazek has rejoined the team but hasn’t had much chance to practice and fully get himself back into shape. Both sound like they’re within a few games of returning.
Your confirmed starters tonight: a pair of early-season Vezina candidates in Jack Campbell (14-4-2 .939 save percentage) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (13-4-3 .937 SV%).
Game Day Quotes
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper on adding Riley Nash via waivers:
We have played him in the playoffs I don’t know how many times — three times, maybe. We have gone deep in series against him. He came available. We are really thin up the middle right now. To bring in a right-shot centerman who is an NHL player of his calibre on the contract that he has, it was an early Christmas present for us.
Cooper on the team’s success despite the absence of Kucherov and Point:
When you are not giving up too much, you are giving yourself a chance to win. If you are giving up two or fewer, you are giving yourself a chance. In Boston [and Montreal], we gave up two. In Philly, we gave up one.
Scoring isn’t coming unbelievably naturally for us right now. The Philly game was a little bit of an aberration. You have to defend. For the most part, we have been doing a pretty good job of that. We are eking out some points.
It will be a big test today against some of the snipers the Leafs have, but the last time we came in here, we did a pretty good job of defending. That is basically how we have to survive here with some of our top offensive guys out.
Sheldon Keefe on the value of the Marlies and his confidence that his AHL players can come up and make a difference:
We lost guys, to a degree, that we were counting on in Brooks and Amadio. These guys were going to be our depth guys to fill in during these situations. Again, it speaks to how important the Marlies are to our operation. To take it even further, our scouting staff –[they] found a player like Steeves. To come in as a first-year pro and step in to play an NHL game and do a good job — a good enough job to get him another game tonight against a good team — [is impressive].
A guy like Rubins comes in as an AHL free agent and works his way through the process. These are [both] very important things. Given my time in the American League, I find I tend to go with the side of confidence in these guys and I’ve seen a lot of players that have — whether it’s in our organization with the Marlies [or not] — had success in the NHL.
You can play against a guy on a Friday night [in the AHL] that you think was kind of average. He gets called up, you watch him on TV in the NHL the next day, and you think, “Wow this guy’s really good.” Those kinds of things give me confidence that guys can come up and play and help you in the short term.
Keefe on why Alex Steeves got the callup over other more experienced Marlies forwards:
Those kinds of discussions don’t really come my way. I think there are a lot of different elements that come into play. With Ho-Sang, he’s on an AHL contract. I know that Steeves is a guy that the organization was very high on right from signing him. Also, his offseason, the early indications in the rookie camp and tournament, the start he got off to [with the Marlies] — that’s all part of it.
Keefe on the concerns regarding a lack of infractions drawn by elite players in the NHL:
Not just with Auston but with some of our other guys, [too] — I’ve thought about it a lot in my time here that we’ve gone through stretches where it’s tough to draw penalties. The thing that I’m drawn to a lot — and it happens with a lot of the elite players in the league — is that they’re so good that they skate through a lot of crap.
There are a lot of players where you can get a stick on them or a body on them and they lose a stride or they fall down. And then there are other players — Auston certainly is one — that just skate right through all that stuff. It’s not really an obstruction to them.
Keefe on the relatively poor process despite the positive result on Tuesday:
We look at our last game — we get a power play and we score right away. [Then], we get five goals that, to me, are very individual plays or one-off type plays. Call them quick strikes — there’s one opportunity there, we strike, and it’s in.
You start to feel really good about your game as a result, but we look at a lot of other things in terms of how we’re controlling the play, how we’re defending the neutral zone, defending our blueline, and defending our net. When we were at our best, we were really excelling in those areas, but it hasn’t been there for us in the last few games.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#20 Nick Ritchie – #64 David Kampf – #25 Ondrej Kase
#43 Kyle Clifford – #47 Pierre Engvall – #46 Alex Steeves
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#56 Kristians Rubins – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#60 Joseph Woll
Extras: Alex Biega
Injured/Out: Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, Ilya Mikheyev, Petr Mrazek, Mitch Marner, Jason Spezza (suspension)
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #7 Mathieu Joseph
#17 Alex Killorn – #71 Anthony Cirelli* – #10 Corey Perry
#13 Boris Katchouck – #79 Ross Colton – #16 Taylor Raddysh
#14 Patrick Maroon – #20 Riley Nash – #41 Pierre-Edouard Bellmare
#77 Victor Hedman – #44 Jan Rutta
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #24 Zach Bogosian
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #52 Cal Foote
Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliot
Injured/Out: Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Erik Cernak