Following a trainwreck goaltending performance from both teams in Detroit, Leaf fans will hope for more stability in net tonight in D.C as they finish off a three-game road trip against the 28-17-9 Capitals (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
With a non-Covid illness continuing to work its way around the team, the Leafs‘ coaching staff will again have some more last-minute decisions to make before puck drop tonight. Keefe says both Travis Dermott and Pierre Engvall are sick but recovering, with Engvall closer to full health. The Leafs head coach also mentioned that John Tavares is dealing with a minor injury, which perhaps explains some of the struggles of late.
On the blue line, it appears as though Keefe will carry over the defense pairs from the win in Detroit, although Dermott’s status could impact the final decisions. One of those pairs included Morgan Rielly next to the rookie in Timothy Liljegren, who has averaged just under 19 minutes per game over his last five games, earning more responsibility than ever before and playing a fairly steady, well-rounded game in the process.
While it might not be long before T.J Brodie returns to Rielly’s side given the familiarity and reliability of that combo, splitting up the team’s two most consistent defensemen to anchor two separate pairings has some logic to it at least for now with Jake Muzzin out, and we saw a positive effect on Justin Holl’s game when paired with Brodie in Detroit.
It’s also likely that Keefe will stick with the Rasmus Sandin and Ilya Lyubushkin pairing that has shown promise as a sort of yin-and-yang dynamic similar to the Sandin/Dermott – Bogosian combo from last season — i.e., a more fluid puck-mover matched with a physical defensive conscience. Sandin, in a much less demanding role than Rielly, has been the Leafs‘ most efficient offensive contributor at five-on-five on the backend this season (.45 xOFF/60 to Rielly’s .32 according to evolving-hockey).
In net, as was expected prior to the year, 24-year-old Iyla Samsonov has taken the reins as the starter this season in Washington. However, due to some injury trouble for Samsonov earlier in the season, Vitek Vanecek has only started four fewer games and has slightly better numbers. Vanecek has battled tough luck recently, however, including entering COVID-19 protocol before falling injured in early February. This will be Vanecek’s first game back on the bench, but Samsonov — 17-9-3 record with .904 save percentage — will receive the nod tonight.
Without completely revisiting Saturday’s fiasco in Detroit, it’s unsurprising to see Petr Mrazek in the starter’s net for Toronto tonight. Jack Campbell could use the time to gather his thoughts and work with Steve Briere after one of his worst performances of his NHL career.
Campbell’s resilience has not been tested to this degree in Toronto, where it had largely been smooth sailing in terms of the consistency to his performance level since he arrived in February of 2020. However, he has successfully overcome crises of confidence within his game dating back in Dallas and LA, so hopefully, that is past experience he can call on as navigates through the current adversity.
A bounce back in net tonight is critical for the Leafs. Any Toronto fan old enough to have followed the Leafs in the pre-Matthews era knows how a goaltending crisis can snowball and be made all the more challenging by the scrutiny that follows a goaltender around in this market. A good defensive performance from the team — similar to the one Mrazek benefitted from against Minnesota last Thursday — would go a long way in helping calm the waters.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the lineup changes tonight:
We’ll have some game-time decisions today. We’ll have a full lot in warmups and make some decisions from there.
[We have] some health decisions for guys that aren’t 100%. We’re just continuing to monitor this bug. It seems like we’ve gotten through the worst of it. Hopefully, it stays that way and stays out of here.
Keefe on the game-time-decisions tonight:
With Dermott and Engvall coming back in, those are two guys we’re trying to get back up and running. They haven’t skated in a couple of days.
Engvall seems to be feeling a little better than Dermott at this point, so we’re going to make a decision after warmup and see who’s available.
Keefe on Ondrej Kase’s fit with John Tavares and William Nylander over the last couple of games:
I liked a lot of the things they did the other night. The third period was kind of crazy for everybody, but I liked a lot of things that they were doing.
It’s hard to play at the pace the Matthews group is going at right now for anyone in the league, but I thought that line did a lot of good things.
Keefe on the challenge that the Leafs face against the Capitals:
There’s the obvious challenges you talk about: their veteran forwards are guys who have played a lot of time and are dynamic offensive players who score when you make mistake and can make you look bad.
They’re also a team that plays a really good structured defensive game. Their defense is as mobile and active as any in the league with how they skate and are involved with everything [the team] does.
Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette on what makes the Leafs dangerous:
It’s the whole thing — five-on-five and power play. They score a bunch of goals, and they got 10 the other night. They’re dangerous, their power play is dangerous, they move the puck well, and there is a lot of high-end skill out there. It’s a good challenge for us defensively and a good challenge for us on the PK as well.
Laviolette on the Capitals’ poor first period in their loss to the Flyers:
We talked about it. We had a meeting on some things that just need to be better. We’re coming off a loss in New York and you wouldn’t expect a period like that, but there it was. We’ve got to learn from it, talk about it, and move forward.
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
#89 Nick Robertson – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
Starter: #35 Petr Mrazek
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras: Kyle Clifford
Out: Ondrej Kase
GTD: Travis Dermott, Pierre Engvall
LTIR: Jake Muzzin
Washington Capitals Projected Lines
#8 Alex Ovechkin – #92 Evgeny Kuznetsov – #43 Tom Wilson
#73 Connor Sheary – #19 Nick Backstrom – #77 T.J Oshie
#24 Connor McMichael – #20 Lars Eller – #10 Daniel Sprong
#62 Carl Hagelin – #26 Nic Dowd – #21 Garnet Hathaway
#42 Martin Fehervary – #74 John Carlson
#9 Dmitri Orlov – #3 Nick Jensen
#26 Michal Kempny – #57 Trevor Van Riemsdyk
Starter: #30 Ilya Samsonov
#41 Vitek Vanecek
Injured: Anthony Mantha, Justin Schultz