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A trying road trip through the Western U.S. continues for the Leafs tonight with a late-night puck drop in Vegas against the Pacific Division-leading Golden Knights (10:00 p.m. EST, TSN4).

Without Jack Eichel (who skated for the first time post-surgery today) or Max Pacioretty due to injury, the Vegas forward group isn’t the most star-studded group in the league, but as we all know by now, the Golden Knights play a structured, physical, up-tempo team game and often have all 12 forwards in the 11-18 minute range at the end of the 60 minutes.  They have 14 regulars at .4 points-per-game or better, so there is a balance to their attack that has allowed them to score at a top-five rate in the league at 3.47 goals per game.

With 12 games played over the last month (the most in the NHL) despite some injuries and Covid-related absences, they’ve been able to stay in a rhythm while many teams around the league have been shut down for extended periods. Vegas has had just two games postponed — the two bookending the holiday break vs. LA on Dec. 23 and vs. COL on Dec. 27 — but otherwise have maintained a relatively normal schedule while going 8-3-1 since Dec. 11.
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The Leafs, in terms of their depth, will likely get Ondrej Kase (game-time decision) back in their lineup tonight with the expectation that he’ll return to Auston Matthews’ wing, where he fit in well in mid-December during Mitch Marner’s absence prior to the Covid outbreak. That has the knock-on effect of bumping Ilya Mikheyev back down onto a third line with David Kampf and Wayne Simmonds while allowing Sheldon Keefe to reassemble the Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander second line. All in all, the depth improves noticeably even without Marner and Pierre Engvall available for the time being.

In net, Jack Campbell (17-5-3, .936 save percentage) will start opposite Robin Lehner (15-10-0, .906 save percentage), with Petr Mrazek expected to receive his first start since December 11th tomorrow in Arizona.

The Leafs beat the Golden Knights 4-0 in their meeting in early November in Toronto, although the lineups are notably different this time around with William Karlsson and Mark Stone back in the lineup for Vegas and Mitch Marner out for Toronto. This should be another good test for the Leafs in a tough building.


Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the challenge against the Golden Knights:

A talented team that plays quick, transitions really fast, and is very dangerous on the rush. They are big and strong as well. They close on you quickly and play hard defensively. They are just really good and dynamic in a lot of areas.

There are a lot of similarities in their offensive game — on the rush and those things — to what we saw in Colorado. From a preparation standpoint, there is that piece of it, bu there are other elements to the game that are challenging with their physicality and how hard they play.

Vegas head coach Pete Deboer on the challenge against the Leafs:

A great team. Their record speaks for itself. Their game is real when you look at the analytics and dive in on them. They are just a really solid hockey team.

For us, first and foremost, who do we have available tonight? Let’s get our best lineup on the ice. We understand the challenge against a really good team like this. We have to rise to the occasion.

Keefe on Campbell blaming himself for the loss in Colorado:

We have seen tremendous progress in that area. You don’t have to look at further than the results on the ice, really. Regardless of how he answers questions, the proof is when he is in the net. He is even-keeled. He goes out and prepares for the next time. He comes back and is ready to play.

He was outstanding the other night in Colorado. He ends up giving up five on the night, but there is a lot more available there for them to score. He has been great all season and Colorado was no exception.

Keefe on the recent play of the Muzzin-Holl pairing:

For me, I know Muzz missed time early coming out of the break and has taken a little bit. I have been very happy with Justin Holl’s game since we have come back from the break. Nobody is going to play a perfect game, especially with the challenging minutes that those guys take and the roles that they play at five-on-five and on the penalty kill. Those are tough minutes against very good players.

I see great progress in Justin Holl’s game. I think that is a real positive for him, that pairing, and our team in general.


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #25 Ondrej Kase
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #64 David Kampf –  #24 Wayne Simmonds
#73 Kyle Clifford – #19 Jason Spezza – #20 Nick Ritchie

Defensemen
#44 Morgan Rielly –  #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#36 Rasmus Sandin – #23 Travis Dermott

Goaltenders
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#35 Petr Mrazek

COVID-19 protocol: Mitch Marner, Pierre Engvall
Extras:
Alex Biega, Timothy Liljegren, Joey Anderson, Brett Seney


Vegas Golden Knights Projected Lines

Forwards
#81 Jonathan Marchessault – #71 William Karlsson – #19 Reilly Smith
#63 Evgenii Dadonov – #20 Chandler Stephenson – #61 Mark Stone
#26 Mattias Janmark – #10 Nicolas Roy – #55 Keegan Kolesar
#28 William Carrier – #21 Brett Howden – #41 Nolan Patrick

Defensemen
#3 Brayden McNabb – #7 Alex Pietrangelo
#27 Shea Theodore – #2 Zach Whitecloud
#17 Ben Hutton – #52 Dylan Coghlan

Goaltenders
Starter: #90 Robin Lehner
#36 Logan Thompson

Injured: Alec Martinez, Nicolas Hague, Max Pacioretty, Jack Eichel, Laurent Brossoit