Before they head out on the road, the Maple Leafs are looking to get back on track following a 1-2-1 stretch as they host the Chicago Blackhawks for an Original Six matchup on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. EST, CBC/Sportsnet).
The Blackhawks, especially with an .890 backup between the pipes tonight in Kevin Lankinen, are going to be an easy team to under-estimate, but if you’re the Leafs, here are some numbers to be aware of since (former Leafs player/Marlies assistant coach) Derek King took over the Hawks’ bench on November 6:
- They’re second in the NHL in goals against per 60 at 5v5
- They’re third in the NHL in high-danger chances against per 60 at 5v5
- They’re sixth in the NHL in expected goals against per 60 at 5v5
- They’re sixth in the NHL in shots against per 60 at 5v5
Despite the impressive defensive metrics under King, the Hawks remain in the bottom half of the league in overall expected goal share, shot attempt share, and scoring chance share, so it’s clear what style of game King is preaching amid their 9-5-0 stretch of play over the past month and change.
The formula for success tonight for the Leafs is clear: If they are unable to break the game open with an early goal or two, they’re going to have to remain patient offensively and avoid feeding the counter-punch transition game for the Hawks, who are healthy among their top-six forward group, including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Alex Debrincat.
The Hawks will look to jam the Leafs up and capitalize on turnovers in the neutral zone and at the offensive blue line, an area of the game where the Leafs have been far too generous to the opposition during their 1-2-1 stretch.
Avoiding odd-man chances against is especially important as goaltender Petr Mrazek looks to get his feet underneath him in his first start since October 30. Based on yesterday’s practice lines, Sheldon Keefe and Dean Chynoweth will move away from the Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl pairing, which has been the worst offender on the blue line when it comes to poor puck management, but it’s important to keep in mind the forwards’ role in giving up those high-percentage odd-man rushes against, as Keefe explains in the game-day quotes below.
Game Day Quotes
Blackhawks head coach Derek King on game-planning for the Leafs:
We are going to face a pretty skilled hockey team. They have some weapons on that side. They have been playing well. We have to go about our business on managing the puck through the neutral zone, being on top of them, backchecking hard, frustrating them, and making it hard for them to create anything.
King on playing in Toronto as a Leaf and as a visiting player:
Going into Toronto to play, it was always great to go there. We would stay overnight and we could go out with family, especially if you won. We really tried hard to win in Toronto.
On the other side, when I played there, it was always a tough place to play because with all of these teams coming in, half of them have Canadian family and they are all there. They pushed us.
Hockey Night in Canada has been a staple. It was always nice if you had a good game and you got one of the Hockey Night in Canada towels around your neck. I have two, and I found one the other day. My kids were cleaning their skates with it. I just shook my head and walked away.
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge the Blackhawks present:
They’re 9-5, or something like that, since the coaching change. Defensively, they are doing a lot of really good things. We have them #1 in the NHL in goals against since the coaching change at five-on-five. There are things we need to be prepared for and sharp with.
They’re defending very well off the rush. They are not giving up virtually anything off of the rush and are forcing you to beat them in their D-zone, and they’re protecting their goaltenders really well. That is what we have to play our way through.
At the same time, we have to make sure we are not giving things up. They have game-breakers offensively if we are going to give things up on the rush here as we have been of late. We have to make sure we have that fixed and those holes are all patched up tonight, and win the special teams battle.
Keefe on why the team has given up more odd-man chances against of late:
It is really connected to how we have played offensively. A lot of their odd-man rushes are directly connected to turnovers in the neutral zone or on entries. When that happens, you don’t even get a chance to defend.
It is not necessarily our defensive play that I am looking at it in a lot of cases. When you turn the puck over, you can’t defend because you don’t have any structure. You are on offense going one way, and all of a sudden, the puck has gone the other way. There is no semblance of defense there.
It is so important that we take care of the puck better. When we have gone well through November, that was a real strength of ours.
The other piece is just that, at times in the offensive zone, we have lost our structure a little bit — we lose F3, give up too much space, and that leads to odd-man rushes. Both of those are offensive events. In many cases, they are events that are happening from our forwards. Like we have talked about earlier in the season, our forwards have to support our D a whole lot better without the puck but even with the puck, they have to make sure they are taking care of our defense, too.
Those are areas that have slipped for us in the last few games. We have to get it back quickly.
Keefe on Petr Mrazek’s handling of an adverse start to his Leaf career:
He has handled it well in terms of the energy he has brought every day and the work that he has put into getting back healthy. He agreed to go down and play in the AHL to get that game in. He is doing all of the right things to get himself on track here. He is healthy now and excited to play. We are obviously hoping we are past the injuries here and we can build some momentum with him.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #25 Ondrej Kase
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#20 Nick Ritchie – #64 David Kampf – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#43 Kyle Clifford – #47 Pierre Engvall – #46 Alex Steeves
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#56 Kristians Rubins – #3 Justin Holl
Starter: #35 Petr Mrazek
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras: Alex Biega
Injured/Out: Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, Ilya Mikheyev, Mitch Marner, Jason Spezza
Chicago Blackhawks Projected Lines
#12 Alex Debrincat – #77 Kirby Dach – #88 Patrick Kane
#38 Brandon Hagel – #19 Jonathan Toews – #52 Reese Johnson
#8 Dominik Kubalik – #17 Dylan Strome – #23 Philipp Kurashev
#22 Ryan Carpenter – #36 Josiah Slavin – #86 Mike Hardman
#44 Calvin de Haan – #4 Seth Jones
#6 Jake McCabe – #5 Connor Murphy
#61 Riley Stillman – #56 Erik Gustafsson
Starter: #32 Kevin Lankinen
#29 Marc-Andre Fleury
Injured/Out: Tyler Johnson, Jujhar Khaira, Caleb Jones, Henrik Borgstrom