After 65 minutes of hockey in Vegas last night followed by a 450km trip south to Arizona, the Maple Leafs will need to dig deep and take care of business against the last-place Coyotes tonight in Glendale (10 p.m. EST, TSN4).
The Coyotes are winners of just seven of 33 games this season, are last in the league in goals against per game, second-last in goals for per game (behind only Montreal), and second-last in combined special teams efficiency (behind only Montreal). Having dealt both Darcy Kuemper and Adin Hill last offseason, both of their goaltenders — Karel Vejmelka and Scott Wedgewood — are in the bottom 10 in save percentage among NHL goalies with a minimum of 15 games played. There is nothing unlucky about their results, either, with the team sitting dead-last in expected goal share at 45.15%.
There is simply nothing competent about the Coyotes in this full-on tank season down in the desert. They will also be without six regulars tonight, including top of their top-four defensemen in Jakob Chychrun and Anton Stralman (not to mention Travis Boyd will slot in as their 2C).
The main danger here is the Leafs overlooking this game amid the distinct rest advantage the Coyotes have coming in, with Toronto on a back-to-back and the Coyotes on three days rest. Hopefully, the Leafs are able to get up for this game given the following circumstances: The team has mustered between 20-40 minutes of good hockey in both of their contests on this road trip so far, which has been good enough for an OT loss and a shootout win, but it is below the standard they set for themselves prior to the pause; there should be no resting on their laurels. In his first trip to Gila River Arena since his NHL coaching debut, Sheldon Keefe’s inlaws will likely be in the building — his wife hails from Scottsdale — as well as Auston Matthews’ family and friends, while Michael Bunting will face off against his former team for the first time as well. Hopefully, there is some extra motivation to be gleaned there.
In net, Petr Mrazek will be featuring for just the fourth time this season in his first start since December 11. The Leafs getting Mrazek into a healthy rhythm in the second half of the season is understatedly important — it’s rare that a team that goes deep in the playoffs without calling on both goalies at some point, Jack Campbell has already surpassed last season’s workload in just 34 games, and the schedule is going to be jampacked as the Leafs make up for nine Covid-related postponements.
We won’t know until puck drop with no morning skate, but expect some fresh bodies to get into the mix tonight for the Leafs. Timothy Liljegren has been patiently awaiting game action since December 14, while Joey Anderson and Brett Seney are both options upfront if Keefe opts to give Kyle Clifford the night off.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the importance of Petr Mrazek playing a more prominent role in the net going forward:
It is very important. We went into this thinking we would have two goaltenders we could rely upon any given night and share the workload with Jack. It hasn’t worked out that way, but fortunately for us, Jack has been rolling.
It has worked out as a positive in Jack’s case because he has taken the ball, run with it, built momentum and confidence in his own game, and has found a rhythm and a groove. At the same time, our team has grown confident in Jack.
It is sort of like a new season for Mrazek. It has been so long since he played. We had a significant gap. It was sort of a preseason feel before coming out on this road trip. He very much should be looking at it as a fresh start here.
Our schedule is going to heat up eventually. It is light right now and will be, for the most part, throughout the rest of this month, but it is going to heat up down the stretch for sure. We have a ton of hockey left to play this season, and we’re going to need Petr.
Keefe on deriving more motivation from the team’s Arizona connections:
The family part of it is something for me for sure. I know for Auston it is. For Bunts, going back to play against an organization that gave you a start in the NHL — those things matter more for someone on the ice than someone standing behind the bench.
I am hoping that kind of stuff is something that we can rally around tomorrow. As I said, we can’t overlook tomorrow’s game. We are going to play a team that is rested.
We have played two very tough games on this trip. We have had ample time to recover between the first and second game. We should be having no issues as we get ready to play a good game again tomorrow night — a good, clean game because we haven’t played a clean game yet here on this trip.
Auston Matthews on playing hard for Michael Bunting in his return to Arizona:
Absolutely. We are expecting big things. He has been talking about this game for a long time. There should be a pretty big video tribute for him and all of that stuff [*smirks*].
He’s excited. I know I am excited to go back and play in front of friends and family. We have a team that is waiting for us back there. I think we’ll be ready to go.
Bunting on Matthews’ comment about a potential video tribute for him during the game:
I don’t think there will be a video tribute, but that is pretty funny he said that.
Playing in front of the fans and playing in my first NHL game for that organization is definitely a memory I’ll remember for the rest of my life. They treated me great there.
It is going to be a bittersweet moment going back. I have made a lot of friendships along the way. I had been there for six or seven years. It is a second home for me and I am looking forward to going back.
Matthews on returning to his home state for a Leafs vs. Coyotes game for the first time since November 2019:
It is exciting to go back and play where you grew up. I know they are extremely proud. It is always a game I have circled on my calendar… I love going back home and spending time there. Playing in front of friends and family is a big deal for me. I am looking forward to it.
Bunting on his relationship with Matthews and the opportunity to play on his line this season:
Playing with him has been a big opportunity for me. We hang out off of the ice quite a bit. We build that chemistry off the ice and bring it on the ice. Playing with him is a lot of fun. I try to get open for him, dig pucks out for him, and make plays for him. Obviously, he is one of the best players in the world. Every single night, he is bringing his game. I know I have to bring mine.
Bunting on returning to Arizona as a member of the Leafs:
I am really excited to go back. They are the team that drafted me and started my pro career. I spent a long time in that organization — mostly in the minors with the Tucson Roadrunners. I am sure there are going to be some fans from Tucson coming to support; I saw a few here, actually, [Tuesday night]. That was pretty cool.
Playing in front of the Coyotes fans will be a lot of fun as well. They treated me great there, that organization. I had a blast while playing there. I have been looking forward to this since the season started.
I know Matty has as well, growing up in Arizona. It is a special game for him as well.
Bunting on what he’s come to admire about Matthews this season:
His work ethic is unbelievable — on the ice, off the ice, in practice. He is always working hard and getting better. He is one of the best players in the world, but he is always trying to get better and working on his craft. That is something that I like to watch during practice and games. I watch his game and learn from him every single day. It has been a lot of fun playing with him.
Bunting on what Matthews means to the Arizona hockey community:
He is a huge part of the community. He is building the hockey community tremendously. He is one of the best players in the world, and for him to come from Arizona, it gives kids someone to look up to. Anything is possible, even though you’re in the desert and hockey is not the biggest thing there… He has built it up tremendously. I am sure he is excited to go back.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#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
#28 Joey Anderson – #19 Jason Spezza – #20 Nick Ritchie
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #35 Petr Mrazek
#36 Jack Campbell
COVID-19 protocol: Mitch Marner, Pierre Engvall
Extras: Rasmus Sandin, Alex Biega, Brett Seney, Kyle Clifford
Arizona Coyotes Projected Lines
#67 Lawson Crouse – #22 Johan Larsson – #81 Phil Kessel
#16 Andrew Ladd – #72 Travis Boyd – #9 Clayton Keller
#26 Antoine Roussel – #20 Riley Nash – #36 Christian Fischer
#38 Liam O’Brien – #17 Alex Galchenyuk – #8 Nick Schmaltz
#14 Shayne Gostisbehere – #61 Dysin Mayo
#62 Janis Moser – #77 Victor Soderstrom
#92 Vladislav Kolyachonok – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
Starter: #70 Karel Vejmelka
#50 Ivan Prosvetov
Covid-19 protocol: Anton Stralman
Injured/Out: Conor Timmins, Carter Hutton, Dmitrij Jaskin, Jakob Chychrun, Ryan Dzingel, Jay Beagle, Barrett Hayton