“I am looking for our team to respond tonight, and it is not going to be an easy night from a competitive standpoint.” 

In both his candid post-game remarks after the loss to the Rangers and in today’s pregame comments, Sheldon Keefe has been issuing a challenge to his group to elevate their competitive standard to where it was back before Covid paused the team’s season in mid-December.

The Leafs have shown it in parts of each game since the start of this prolonged road trip, but a 60-minute effort has eluded them despite consistently starting games strong (and often building multi-goal leads).

On Wednesday, it was easy to point fingers at the Sandin-Liljegren and Dermott-Biega pairings on defense (and they both did struggle), but the team’s five-man resistance inside its own zone has been nowhere near as determined and structured in terms of defending in layers and making it hard on the opposition to get to the good ice. The clean showings in November where the Leafs gave up very little in the high-danger areas around their net have been absent of late.

With a light-on-game-reps Petr Mrazek in net tonight, Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin still unavailable, and Marlies defenseman Carl Dahlstrom debuting on the bottom pairing, they will need to find that form as a team tonight against an Islanders squad that is now relatively healthy, Covid-free, and hungry to make up ground in the standings with all of its games in hand.

The Isles are winners of three straight and 7-2-1 in their last 10. While they did play last night (a 4-0 win over Arizona), no Islander forward played over 19 forwards and all of their defensemen were in the 18-20 minute range in a game where they gave up just 17 shots on goal to the bottom-feeding Coyotes.

Game Day Quotes

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz on the loss of NYI legend Clark Gillies:

Very tough. When you talk about Clark, he has a relationship with so many guys who have cut their teeth with the Islanders. He was bigger than life. When you saw Clark Gillies, you thought, “Islander.” There was no doubt. There was no grey area.

Charismatic. He played the right way. Big part of the community. A good teammate and a fantastic person. My heart dropped when I was told coming off of the ice.

He will be missed. He really will.

Sheldon Keefe on the importance of getting Petr Mrazek’s season up and running:

We are going to need two goaltenders that are both going to have to play regularly as the schedule heats up when the calendar turns to February. We have known that is coming. With the schedule being as spaced out as it has been since Christmas, it has been challenging to get two guys going. There hasn’t been a lot of games played and they are spaced out.

Of course, we do need to keep Jack going and keep him in a rhythm, too. That has been a challenge, but Petr has been patient and he has continued to work and be ready. The games are coming, so that is why we felt this one tonight was important. It’s not too long of a gap since he played in Arizona.

We’re going to keep him up and going, and at the same time, our team has to be comfortable playing with him in there. He is a guy who has played in the league a long time and has played very well in the league for a long time. We need to get him playing that way.

Keefe on the key for his team to defend the net better:

Generally, having numbers and having people in that space and not vacating that space. It takes a little extra work to get there consistently. We have done that really well throughout the season. It is a real foundational piece of defending in our own end. When we are at our best, we are really strong in that area.

We are going to be put to the test tonight in that area. This Islanders team gets the puck there in a hurry. We have to defend our net really well. It has been a strength of ours throughout the season. That is why, when it is not there, it is disappointing and makes it really hard to win.

It is something that we get back to as a foundational piece of our defending. We did it well in the first period the other night against the Rangers, but when you are not consistent with it, it is tough to win. The consistency piece is where we need to get better. Our guys know how to play.

Keefe on how different of a challenge the Islanders will present this time vs. the Leafs‘ last visit to UBS Arena:

Significantly different. They were a depleted lineup at that time. It is a far better lineup that we’ll see tonight. They’re also just playing better. They have found their game. They have been getting lots of good results. They are a confident team.

I am sure every time a team ahead of them in the standings comes in, they are hungry and eager to get those points and get those wins. We are fully expecting a much more difficult game in here tonight.

Even the one when we were last in here, we were in control of it, but it was not an easy game. It took a while for us to extend our lead and get comfortable in the game. Joe Woll got a shutout for us in that game and did a really good job. Our guys defended our net well.

It is not an easy game to play. Today, we are going to get put to the test in that area. I am excited about it because I am looking for our team to respond tonight, and it is not going to be an easy night from a competitive standpoint. The Islanders are going to make it hard.

Carl Dahlstrom on the kind of game he’s hoping to bring to the lineup tonight:

I see myself as a two-way defenseman. I am always trying to bring a steady game and be reliable. That is kind of what I have been trying to establish ever since I came over here five years ago. That is what I am going to try to bring.

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
#24 Wayne Simmonds – #19 Jason Spezza – #28 Joey Anderson

#44 Morgan Rielly –  #78 TJ Brodie
#38 Rasmus Sandin  – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#48 Carl Dahlstrom – #23 Travis Dermott

Starter: #35 Petr Mrazek
#36 Jack Campbell

Extras/Taxi Squad: Kyle Clifford, Nick Ritchie, Erik Källgren, Justin Holl, Ondrej Kase
Injured: Jake Muzzin (concussion)

New York Islanders Projected Lines

#27 Anders Lee – #13 Mathew Barzal  – #10 Austin Czarnik
#18 Anthony Beauvillier – #29 Brock Nelson – #12 Josh Bailey
#11 Zach Parise – #44 Jean-Gabriel Pageau – #26 Oliver Wahlstrom
#17 Matt Martin  – #53 Casey Cizikas – #15 Cal Clutterbuck

#3 Adam Pelech – #24 Scott Mayfield
#33 Zdeno Chara – #8 Noah Dobson
#45 Robin Salo – #4 Andy Greene

Starter: #40 Semyon Varlamov
#30 Ilya Sorokin

Injured/Out: Ryan Pulock, Kyle Palmieri