Maple Leafs hockey returns after a two-and-a-half-week hiatus tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC).

A lot has transpired in just two and a half weeks:

  • The team spent nearly a week on the road out in Western Canada but only played one game before the COVID-19 outbreak — eventually affecting 15 players and seven staff — swept through the team. The organization needed to charter separate flights for its positive and negative players, including a delay flying the positive players home due to a pilot bailing on them due to safety concerns at the last minute.
  • All told, six consecutive games were postponed with two additional postponements announced by the NHL in January (vs. CAR on Jan. 3 and @ MTL on Jan. 8). The nationally-broadcasted games this week (tonight vs. Ottawa on HNIC, Wednesday Night Hockey vs. Edmonton this week, and HNIC vs. Colorado next Saturday) will play on, health permitting.
  • Jason Spezza successfully reduced his suspension through an appeal to four games but tested positive for COVID-19 the day Gary Bettman announced his decision.
  • The team did not step on the ice for over a week between December 18 and 26 before the group slowly reassembled over the course of five practice days this week.
  • The organization announced it would go without fans in the building while the 1,000-person capacity-limit regulations, announced by the provincial government this past week, are in place.
  • Timothy Liljegren tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday and is currently in the protocol.
  • Mitch Marner and Rasmus Sandin both finished their injury rehab and are ready to return.

Such a unique set of circumstances makes it hard to know what to expect from the game tonight, especially knowing the Senators also haven’t played since December 18 and are down quite a few bodies. It’s more than just a couple of weeks without games; there was a full week without practice time in there as well, which could make for sloppy hockey tonight. No fans in the stands will also have its effect.

As far as the lineup goes, the players who most recently exited protocol and returned to practice — William Nylander, Jake Muzzin, and Morgan Rielly — are all considered game-time decisions. It appears as though Nylander and Rielly will play and Muzzin will not, but it remains to be seen what the final determinations are by the medical staff. As for Marner and Sandin, both will see their first game action since December 1 and December 5, respectively.

The major boost at 5v5 and on the penalty kill Marner provides requires no explanation, but it will be interesting to see how it might change the dynamic on the top power-play unit (assuming he is immediately reinserted there). The Leafs went a remarkable 11 for 21 (52.4%) during his absence — more than 15% clear of the next best power play in the month of December. They were also top three in the league in the month of November (29.7%) with Marner in the mix, to be fair to him, but it was hard to ignore the benefit of major shot threats on both flanks of the ice.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the challenge of getting back into game mode:

You just have to be really mindful and aware — extra focused on your habits and your details. Those are the kinds of things that take a while to get going. You have to get in a groove in games with your habits. We have tried to really harp on that through our practices. We feel like we have had some really good practices here, especially over the last few days. The team very much looks ready to play a game.

We are going to have to work our way back into it. We have the extra layer tonight with having an empty arena. It is another way you have to be focused on your own and be ready to execute. You can’t rely on the energy and the atmosphere. We have to get back into that mindset we had to have last season.

Keefe on the excitement among the team to be returning to game action at the SBA:

A lot of excitement. It is different. We don’t spend a lot of time in this facility unless we are playing on a game day. It has been a while since we have been here. It is a different part of your routine coming in and making your way down here. It is a different environment and the facility is much different.

Lots of excitement. That is why I like the fact that we use this building only for games. You come in here, and you know it is game day. With that, it brings a level of excitement that you are bringing back at it.

DJ Smith on Brannstrom and Thompson entering the lineup with the absences on the Senators’ blue line:

Branny [and Lassi Thompson] will play tonight. Toronto has a full lineup. They have everyone back. It is a perfect time for these young guys to go in there and play against one of the league’s best teams. Let’s see what they got.

Smith’s reflections on 2021 for the Ottawa Senators:

It was crazy with the no fans, the shortened season, the positive tests, and all of the things. Looking forward, with where the Ottawa Senators are as an organization when we are healthy, the young guys have come along — the Drake Bathersons, the Josh Norris’, the Tkachuks, the Stutzles. Especially the guys up front, they have now [established] themselves as real NHL players.

2022 brings continued growth amongst all of these guys. I think you are going to see the Ottawa Senators turn the corner.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev  – #64 David Kampf –  #25 Ondrej Kase
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds

#44 Morgan Rielly –  #78 TJ Brodie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #33 Alex Biega

Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#35 Petr Mrazek

Extras: Nick Ritchie, Jake Muzzin
COVID-19 protocol: Timothy Liljegren

Ottawa Senators Projected Lines

#7 Brady Tkachuk – #18 Tim Stutzle – #19 Drake Batherson
#10 Alex Formenton  – #71 Chris Tierney – #28 Connor Brown
#13 Zach Sanford – #27 Dylan Gambrell – #16 Auston Watson
#62 Clark Bishop – #17 Adam Gaudette – #20 Logan Shaw

#72 Thomas Chabot – #60 Lassi Thompson
#5 Nick Holden – #2 Artem Zub
#26 Erik Brannstrom – #98 Victor Mete

Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#32 Filip Gustavsson

Injured/Out: Colin White, Shane Pinto, Josh Brown
COVID-19 protocol: Anton Forsberg, Josh Norris, Tyler Ennis, Nick Paul, Dillon Heatherington