With two of their top-four defensemen out of the lineup, the Maple Leafs will need their young pairing of Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren to step up and fill the void against the 25-10-4 Rangers tonight at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Especially on the road without the last change, it should mean not just more total minutes but also more matchup time for Sandin-Liljegren against the prolific scoring duo that is Chris Kreider and Mika Zibenejad. They have combined for 38 goals in 39 games this season, including 24 for Kreider alone, placing him fourth in the NHL just behind Auston Matthews.
The Rangers also have their leading points scorer (by points per game) in Artemi Panarin driving their second line offensively at 5v5, so the pair will share plenty of ice time with elite scoring threats from the other side tonight — something Liljegren has a little more experience with than Sandin so far this season.
Earlier today, Sheldon Keefe aptly described tonight’s test for the Swedish defensemen: “One way or another, they are going to be better at the end of the night than they were going into it.”
It is a terrific opportunity. It is one that Liljegren has had a pretty good chunk of time here now — before Christmas, and then with huge minutes the other night in St. Louis — playing up in the top four and killing penalties. When you are killing penalties, you are going against the other team’s best players. Naturally, being paired with Muzzin, you are going to get some tough matchups.
Sandin now gets an opportunity here. I think, for a young player, it is what you want. For every young player, it starts with wanting an opportunity to get in the lineup and showing you can play in the league. The next piece is that you can elevate into the top four, take on greater matchups and greater minutes, so here you are.
They have gamebreakers on the other side that are difficult to defend against. If you make mistakes, they make you pay. At the same time, if you are a young guy, I would be super excited tonight to take that on. It is the type of experience that should help them on their development path to be able to be relied upon more.
One way or another, they are going to be better at the end of tonight than they were going into it. That is saying something considering both guys have played very well for us this season.
Of course, it also means a greater percentage of their shifts will be shared with either the Matthews or Tavares lines in those tougher matchups, and the Leafs improving on their five-man defensive play from Saturday in St. Louis is going to be a key factor in setting Sandin-Liljegren up for success tonight.
In the two other meetings against the Rangers so far this season (a 2-1 OT loss and a 2-1 regulation win), the Leafs have put 71 shots on goaltender Igor Shesterkin and just three made it past him. The challenge of finding ways to score — ugly, and by any mean’s necessary — against a hot goaltender is always a good test for a Leafs team that has run into them repeatedly in the playoffs and not been able to muster up enough offense in those critical situations despite usually dominating the offensive-zone possession time.
Shesterkin has won four straight starts and 12 of his last 14 games (.945 save percentage). With a 17-4-2 record and a .939 save percentage this season, he’s almost certainly the man standing in between Jack Campbell and the Vezina Trophy if the season were to end tomorrow.
Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant does not announce his starter until shortly before game time, so we’ll need final confirmation on whether it’s Shesterkin or Alexandar Georgiev tending goal for the Rangers tonight, but Shesterkin is healthy and New York is coming off of three days of rest just like the Leafs.
The Leafs‘ lineup, outside of their two defense pairs — with Alex Biega stepping onto the bottom pairing with Travis Dermott — will remain the same as in St. Louis. Ondrej Kase and Justin Holl remain in Arizona awaiting clearance from COVID-19 protocol, while Nick Ritchie began skating with the team again this morning but won’t play until he’s up to full speed.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on Campbell’s ability to bounce back from a five-goals-against game in St. Louis:
He has proven to be consistent. I would expect he will bounce back. I also expect our team to defend better around him. When referencing his stats or the number of goals that go in, it is not just a goaltending thing. It speaks to the quality of chances and how close we were allowing the opposition to get to our net. That is a team thing.
We have been working at that and talking about that a lot. It was an issue throughout the road trip — defending our net better — and when we do that, it gives our goaltenders a much better chance of success.
We have proven that with Jack. That partnership between how we defend, how he can see pucks, and how we can limit chances helps him. At the same time, when we do make mistakes, he is there to make big saves for us. We just have to do a better job of protecting our goaltenders and allowing them to do their job.
Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant on where his team stacks up in the league and if he is surprised by his team’s success in the first half of the 2021-22 season:
I don’t worry about the rest of the league. I worry about where our team is. I am happy with where our team is. We have eight games until the break. We are [tied] for first place in our division — a really good division. I am real happy.
I am not surprised at all. Do I look at the other teams and say they are real good hockey teams? Yeah. When I came into this team at the start of the year, I knew we had a good team and good goaltending. We’ll just keep playing. I like what we’re doing, I like what we’ve done, and I am not surprised.
Gallant on the tough schedule coming up for his team, starting with tonight vs. the Leafs:
They’re all a test. We have good teams coming up — top teams. As I said before, two points against Carolina or two points against the teams at the bottom — it doesn’t matter. Every team can beat you in this league. If you aren’t prepared to play, you are going to lose.
The top two guys on that line have had an outstanding year so far. We have one going to the All-Star game with 24 goals, I think. Mika has been outstanding in the last number of games. For Kakko, the numbers aren’t there, but he is playing good defensive hockey. They play well. They have been a big part of our team winning, but when we win, it is about our team — not one line.
Gallant on his bottom six:
You put different guys in different spots, and when everybody is healthy, we know what our lines are and what they are going to be. Third line, fourth line… The so-called American Hockey League line, if you want to call it that, didn’t play like a fourth line. They played really well, worked hard, and did their job perfectly.
You can say Ryan Reaves is a fourth liner, but some nights, Ryan Reaves’ line is the third line. Whoever is playing well that night… Sure, we have third and fourth lines like every other team does, but some nights when your fourth line plays as well as ours has in the past, they are like a third line.
Keefe on Auston Matthews’ 10-game goal-scoring streak on the road:
I really just think it is the obvious: He is a great player with the ability to score every night or really any shift if the opportunity comes around. When the other team makes a mistake or when he gets the puck in a good spot, he has the ability to capitalize on it.
I don’t think there is anything more to it than that. It just speaks to his level of consistency as a player to put himself in those spots. That is really all I can say about it. It is impressive to watch.
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 – #47 Pierre Engvall
#43 Kyle Clifford – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#23 Travis Dermott – #33 Alex Biega
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#35 Petr Mrazek
COVID-19 protocol: Justin Holl, Ondrej Kase
Extras: Nick Ritchie, Michael Hutchinson
Injured: Jake Muzzin (concussion)
New York Rangers Projected Lines
#20 Chris Kreider – #93 Mika Zibanejad – #24 Kappo Kakko
#10 Artemi Panarin – #16 Ryan Strome – #72 Filip Chytil
#29 Dryden Hunt – #21 Barclay Goodrow – #15 Julien Gauthier
#14 Greg McKegg – #17 Kevin Rooney – #75 Ryan Reaves
#55 Ryan Lindgren – #23 Adam Fox
#79 K’Andre Miller – #8 Jacob Trouba
#12 Patrick Nemeth – #45 Braden Schneider
Starter: #31 Igor Shesterkin
#40 Alexandar Georgiev
Covid-19 protocol: Alexis Lafreniere
Injured: Sammy Blais