Returning from back-to-back wins on the road, the Maple Leafs will be greeted by a full building tonight as they host the Buffalo Sabres at Scotiabank Arena (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
The Sabres, who rank 20th or worse in every major statistical category this season and are bottom five in goals and shots against, will enter tonight’s contest losers of six straight by a combined score of 25-12.
Full fan attendance will hopefully help eliminate the risk of a trap-game possibility coming back home from a couple of wins on the road, and if Auston Matthews’ history against tonight’s opposition goaltender Craig Anderson is any indication, he is about to put a zero-point, zero-shot showing against Washington behind him with a vengeance.
A few fun stats: Monday’s game was actually Matthews’ first without a shot on goal since a loss to the Islanders on November 13th of 2019, which is 151 games or 840 days ago. He’s failed to register a shot on goal just five times in 416 career NHL games (including playoffs). Starting with his four-goal game in his NHL debut, Matthews has 13 goals on 50 shots in 12 games against Anderson coming into tonight (all vs. the Senators).
The Maple Leafs are not expected to make any lineup changes at forward but will substitute Travis Dermott in for Timothy Liljegren, which will rejig two of the three defense pairings. Dermott will be hoping to pick up where he left off prior to his illness; his 17:16 average time on ice in the games against Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Columbus was the most responsibility he’s been afforded over a three-game stint this season, and he was playing his best hockey of the campaign by Sheldon Keefe’s description.
Dermott will join Ilya Lybushkin on the bottom pairing after missing out on Saturday and Monday’s games, while TJ Brodie and Justin Holl will look to continue the momentum they’ve built through two games together, and Rasmus Sandin will shift to his off-side next to Morgan Rielly.
With some experience on the right side from his SHL and Marlies days, Sandin has expressed eagerness for giving it a shot whenever asked by the Leafs coaching staff, including some reps on the right side next to Jake Muzzin a few weeks ago in the team’s 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. He should be riding in with confidence after a game-winning goal and an assist in Washington.
In net, Keefe will give Petr Mrazek the nod for a second consecutive start for the Leafs for the first time this season: “He has earned it… There is no secret that Jack Campbell has stumbled a bit here of late… The timing really makes sense.”
Game Day Quotes
Sabres head coach Don Granato on the danger Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner present to his team:
If you just concentrate too much on them, the other guys will hurt you, too. You have to respect the top players in this league and their abilities. They have lots of top players.
But Marner and Matthews are two guys I have watched since they were teenagers. You see them now, and it is not even a surprise. They still look to me as if they are teenagers — two extremely talented guys having fun doing what they’re doing. By the way, it is at the NHL level now.
When you watch these guys as young guys, what they’re doing is no surprise. Auston is a goal scorer and he is scoring goals.
Let’s not forget for those two guys that this is an extremely challenging market. They are living under a microscope every day. That can stunt and derail progress lots of times. Give those two guys credit; they have continually made improvements.
Granato on the Selke buzz around Matthews:
I got a chuckle out of it even when he entered the league. He did have an appreciation for that side of the game. I had no problem using him in the U18 championships against Laine, Aho, and Puljujarvi — guys in that tournament who are prolific.
He wants to win. Part of winning is just shutting a guy down. He has always had that. Winning a faceoff has always been important to him. He should be talked about in that light because he is good in those areas.
Granato on how he knew Matthews could handle the Toronto market and enjoy huge success as an NHLer:
With him, it was really simple. When you are a coach, you challenge your players — we have to every day. When the guy across from him on the ice in the other colour jersey is going to challenge him harder than you can as a coach, you probably need to play in the AHL.
With Auston, having him and having been around the NHL, I didn’t feel there was any player that was going to break his confidence. If he ended up struggling on a certain night, he would want to go back and play against that player. I can tell you just from working with him: “I want that player again because I will fix this right now.”
In essence, that is the process that happens for guys that enter the league. Are they confident enough against the opponent across from you?
For him, his skill level was so high that this dynamic was removed. If he had a night where he lost his confidence or didn’t play well, he knew he could fix it. That is what talented players do.
Granato on visiting the Leafs with full fan attendance in the building:
That is exciting. It is fun. It is way better. These guys want enthusiasm, adrenaline, excitement. We want the best. We want to play against the best with every opponent.
It is exciting to play the Maple Leafs. It is exciting to play them because they’re so talented. They’re scoring like crazy now. They have a great building with fans that are going to be into it.
We are going to have to deal with all of that. That is going to be good for us to deal with that — to have to deal with that, learn how to deal with that, and rise to the challenge. I know our guys are really excited for it.
Sheldon Keefe on the decision to start Petr Mrazek two in a row:
He has earned it. There is no secret that Jack Campbell has stumbled a bit here of late. We have been talking about getting Petr more time in the net. We think the timing really makes sense.
Keefe on Michael Bunting establishing himself as a top-line mainstay over the span of 50 games:
I had a pretty good sense he was going to settle somewhere in our top six, whether it was going to be with John or Auston. The way we started things was different. We didn’t even have Auston in camp. We had other guys we were giving opportunities to.
I fully expected that Bunts, knowing the competitor he is, if I moved him around and started him lower, he was going to work his way through it. If not, he would really push those ahead of him. As it turns out, he has made his way right to the top.
It is really no surprise given the competitor that he is. He has a good skill set. As we have talked about, he has great chemistry with Auston. With Mitch, that has grown as well. That group has been very good for us.
You can see Bunts is getting better and better every time out.
Keefe on Bunting striking up a good friendship with his linemates:
It is really important. In particular with Auston, I saw it right from really early in camp that those guys had a connection. They were spending a lot of time. You would see them coming and going from the building together. You could see that chemistry there.
I think it is important. All of our guys want to do well for each other no matter who they are playing with, but even more so when you have a connection and you are spending more time together. It encourages you to talk more and find solutions when things are difficult.
It was great to see early on in camp. Bunts was a new player on our team. Guys like Auston and Mitch have been here a long time. For him to fit in like that was great to see from our perspective. He did his talking on the ice from there.
Keefe on the importance of not overlooking opponents:
We’ve been talking a lot about how we play. We hadn’t been playing nearly good enough defensively no matter who we were playing, whether it was Montreal or St. Louis. We weren’t playing well enough as a team. That has been a major area of focus for us.
We have seen that here now. From Columbus to Minnesota to Detroit to Washington, it is important for us no matter who we are playing. That is really it.
We have talked about, as you go through the Montreal game, it being a bit of a wake-up call. We are a team that has lots to play for and reasons to be dialed in, but the reality is that you are in an 82-game schedule where you are going to have ups and downs and dips in your play.
You can talk about it, but sometimes you need a real slap in the face to get it dialed in. That is how I felt about the Montreal game, not unlike the game against Pittsburgh early in the season. As terrible as we played and as poorly as we felt, I felt pretty confident that some of our best hockey this season would be right around the corner.
That is how I feel about how we have played of late. We are just going to continue to focus on that no matter who the opponent is.
Keefe on whether he would have liked to have seen someone from his team say something to Tom Wilson after he shoved John Tavares to the ice after the whistle in Washington:
I have watched that sequence back. I don’t know if a lot of our guys knew exactly what happened in the moment.
It can go both ways for me. There is a symbolic part of it where you are staying together and all of that, but you can say whatever you want to Tom Wilson. It is not going to change a single thing about how he plays or what he does. I don’t know if it is worth really engaging with.
There are a certain number of guys that it doesn’t matter. In a different way, it doesn’t matter what you say or do to Michael Bunting. You are not going to change how he plays. You can pretend that you are going to make a difference, but it is not going to make a difference. If I had my choice, I’d rather we keep playing, play harder, and be more competitive when the puck drops.
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 – #38 Rasmus Sandin
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
Starter: #35 Petr Mrazek
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras: Timothy Liljegren
Injured: Ondrej Kase (day to day)
LTIR: Jake Muzzin
Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines
#53 Jeff Skinner – #72 Tage Thompson – #89 Alex Tuch
#37 Casey Mittelstadt – #24 Dylan Cozens – #21 Kyle Okposo
#74 Rasmus Asplund– #19 Peyton Krebs – #71 Victor Olofsson
#96 Anders Bjork – #20 Cody Eakin – #15 John Hayden
#26 Rasmus Dahlin – #78 Jacob Bryson
#23 Mattias Samuelsson – #45 Casey Fitzgerald
#8 Robert Hagg – #13 Mark Pysyk
Starter: #41 Craig Anderson
#31 Dustin Tokarski
Extras: Colin Miller, Will Butcher, Vinnie Hinostroza, Mark Jankowski
Injuries: Jack Quinn, Zemgus Girgensons, Henrik Jokiharju, Drake Caggiula