Following a dominant shutout performance in their first game of the new year, the Maple Leafs will play just their second game since December 16th against an Oilers team that is up against the ropes after dropping four straight and losing their superstar to a positive Covid diagnosis (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
The atmosphere is tense in Edmonton at the moment. Their extremely hot start to the season is well behind them now, and a rough pre-Christmas stretch has only gotten worse — they’ve now given up 17 goals during their four-game losing streak.
There are some reasons to believe that the Oilers’ skid — which could now be feasibly extended by McDavid’s absence — wasn’t as bad as it looked on the surface. Their underlying numbers have yet to fall off despite their poor record of late; they’ve remained on the fringe on the league’s top 10 both offensively and defensively in xGoals at five-on-five during their 2-7-2 stretch.
Outside of goaltending, their penalty kill has been their biggest weakness as of late. During their 2-7-2 streak, Edmonton is fourth-last in both xGA and goal against per 60 minutes on the kill. It’s no secret Mikko Koskinen is experiencing a miserable stretch at the worst time possible, losing all of his starts during the aforementioned slump (0-5-1) with his last win coming back on December 1st. Koskinen has given up 24 goals in those six games for a woeful .863 save percentage.
Stuart Skinner, a 23-year-old with only 11 starts in the NHL, played a role in both of the Oilers’ last two wins back in the middle of December, winning the first against Columbus and relieving Koskinen in the other. Tonight’s starter, however, will be neither the struggling Koskinen nor the rookie Skinner but the 39-year-old Mike Smith, who has given up 10 goals in two games since his return to the lineup on the 29th of December.
Missing Connor McDavid for the first time the season will mean other big adjustments are in store for Edmonton tonight. With Derek Ryan and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out as well, Jesse Puljujarvi and Zach Hyman will flank inexperienced center in Ryan McLeod, and there will be a lot of pressure offensively on the top line of Warren Foegele, Kailer Yamamoto, and Leon Draisaitl.
As for the Leafs‘ lineup, Ondrej Kase sustained a minor injury in practice on Monday, missed practice yesterday, and will now sit out for tonight’s game. Remarkably, he’s the only non-healthy forward on the big club at the moment. In his place, Nick Ritchie will slide in on a familiar spot with Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds in behind a promising checking third line of Pierre Engvall, David Kampf, and Ilya Mikheyev.
Jack Campbell, who has given up a single goal in his last two starts, will be Toronto’s starter between the pipes, where the Leafs should have a pronounced advantage entering this matchup.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on whether the team’s extended break made things difficult despite the usefulness of the extra practice time:
You come out of the Christmas break there and you’ve got the entire team, whether you had Covid or not, having about ten days where they did not skate. We had guys coming off of Covid protocols and getting them back up to speed and various times while the team was going.
It’s been [partially about] us getting the practice time that we’ve lacked throughout the season. I’ve said it before — we hadn’t had practice two days in a row the entire season up until we’ve come back here after Christmas. So that’s given us valuable time, but we’ve had to balance that with just getting the team up and running again.
Keefe on how much the extended break has been a reset for the team:
To talk about a refocussing or resetting — there has been a bit of a preseason feel to things here. Even the other night, we played one game, and now it’s been three days since leading up to tonight’s game. [I know] the guys are looking forward to games coming back here.
That’s the interesting thing: It’s a time where you’re screaming for practice days and some days off. On the flip side of it, you’re wanting to play games. We feel like we’ve gotten some good work done — the guys have gotten lots of touches at practice, and they’re looking to put that to work in games.
Keefe on how Rasmus Sandin has recovered from his month-long break:
The long layoff for him was a combination of Covid and injury. I thought, both in the practices and the game the other night against Ottawa, he looked really refreshed to me and had a lot of jump.
The break for a young player like that [can be useful] — he’s already played more games this season than he played all of last season. In terms of his progression and what’s next, I think it’s just about continuing to build confidence and consistency.
When I talk about confidence, that’s confidence in himself and his own game, which I think has been a strength of his. He is a very confident guy, but then there’s the coaching staff and trying to earn that confidence through consistent play so that you can earn more play and tougher matchups.
Oilers head coach Dave Tippett on how the team is handling its losing streak on top of losing players sporadically to Covid protocol:
I know it seems on the outside like everything is chaos, but our group has stayed very tight inside. If you watch our games, our guys are working hard and we’re trying to find a solution to it. That was the mindset this morning — we’ve got players that are jumping in and playing, so we’ve got to play hard and give ourselves the best chance to win tonight.
Tippett on his views on confidence for goaltenders after his comments about Mikko Koskinen’s performance following their loss to the Rangers:
When [goaltenders] make mistakes, it has an impact on the game. We’re a team that is struggling. Those are mistakes that are made that affect the outcome of the game. It’s no different than it would be with a defenseman or a forward.
A winger makes a mistake, you never notice it. The center, [you notice it] a little bit more, the defenseman even more, and the goalie’s front and center. It has an impact on the game. There’s a frustration around our team [regarding goaltending].
The question was [about] the start of the game. The whole thing was taken out of context. We’re talking about starting the game [better].
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kampf – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#25 Nick Ritchie – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#36 Rasmus Sandin – #23 Travis Dermott
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#35 Petr Mrazek
Extras: Alex Biega, Timothy Liljegren
Injured: Ondrej Kase (day to day)
Edmonton Oilers Projected Lines
#37 Warren Foegele – #29 Leon Draisaitl – #56 Kailer Yamamoto
#18 Zach Hyman – #71 Ryan McLeod – #13 Jesse Pulljujarvi
#16 Tyler Benson – #14 Devin Shore – #44 Zach Kassian
#42 Brendan Perlini – #70 Colton Sceviour – #8 Kyle Turris
#25 Darnell Nurse – #75 Evan Bouchard
#2 Duncan Keith – #5 Cody Ceci
#84 William Lagesson – #20 Slater Koekkoek
Starter: #41 Mike Smith
#19 Mikko Koskinen
Injured/Out: Oscar Klefbom, Kris Russell, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
COVID-19 protocol: Connor McDavid, Derek Ryan, Tyson Barrie