With 21 goals allowed in their last four games, the Maple Leafs are hoping for some stability on defense and in net tonight as they visit the 28-25-3 Blue Jackets for the second time in two weeks (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Coming off back-to-back losses in extra time — the first was an overtime loss against the Kings after giving up a 3-1 lead, and the next was a 5-4 shootout loss to the Bruins on Saturday — the Blue Jackets are at a stage where every point matters. Currently, they’re the highest-ranked team on the outside looking in on a wild card spot. That’s not saying much, though, as they are still 10 points behind the Capitals with only a 1.2% chance of making the playoffs, according to moneypuck.com.
Following what was surely another awkward goaltending decision for Sheldon Keefe, Petr Mrazek will make his fourth start in six games. Mrazek was trending up before letting in five against the Sabres last week, but the save percentage number that night was truly a reflection of the team’s effort more than his. He collected wins in his two previous starts before the loss to Buffalo, but he will face the challenge tonight of a Columbus team that has scored 11 times in their last three and is among the league leaders (alongside the Leafs and Panthers) in goals for per game since late January (4.06). Fingers crossed.
Having not traveled with the team to Columbus for the game tonight, both Ondrej Kase and Rasmus Sandin will miss a second consecutive game for the Leafs tonight. As a result, Travis Dermott will likely remain on a pair with Ilya Lyubushkin. Up front, Nick Robertson, having helped light a spark on the John Tavares and William Nylander line with a goal on Saturday, will remain on the left side of the second line.
For the Blue Jackets, with Joonas Korpisalo out with an injury, it will be the third start for Elvis Merzlikins in just four days. Having given up eight goals in the back-to-back on Friday-Saturday, Merzlikins should have his hands full tonight against a Bunting-Matthews-Marner combo that have been absolutely flying as of late. On the season, Merzlikins is 19-14-3 with a .902 save percentage.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the Jackets’ potent offense:
As a team, they’ve been right near the top of the league in a number of categories offensively. The way they play — they’ve got a lot of skill, and they come at you. They have skill on the back end with Werenski and others that make plays, so there are demands there for us defensively.
Keefe on Timothy Liljegren’s consistency as he’s become a regular on the team:
Like any young defenseman that’s looking to adjust to the league and find comfort in being an everyday consistent and reliable player, that’s really what you’re looking for: to know what you’re going to get every day. You’re not always going to have your best game, but there’s an expectation that you’re going to provide.
In Lily’s case, when he’s been at his best for us, he’s done a good job moving the puck up the ice to the forwards. When it’s time to make a play, he makes it. He’s defended the rush very well and been a big part of how we’ve done a better job [defending] the rush here.
The next step, as we’ve been talking about, is the play in and around our net. It hasn’t been as good as of late and some of our younger defensemen have struggled with that. We’d like to see him continue to grow there.
Keefe on the team conceding more point-shot goals of late while doing a better job of defending the rush:
Anytime you give teams opportunities to get to the top, they’re going to throw pucks on net because we’ve had a lot of those go in as of late, so you’d expect that other teams are going to target that until you clean it up.
The other part of it is how much better we’ve defended off the rush — we’ve been one of the best teams [in the respect] since coming out of the [5-2 loss to Montreal]. As a result, teams are looking to other areas to generate offense, and right now, it’s the other teams’ defense throwing pucks at our net.
Frankly speaking, a lot of time you’ll take that, but there is another layer that we need to do a better job of — just trying to control sticks and keep people away from our net before they have an opportunity to tip them.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
Starter: #35 Petr Mrazek
#36 Jack Campbell
Extra: Kyle Clifford
Injured/Out: Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin
LTIR: Jake Muzzin
Columbus Blue Jackets Projected Lines
14 Gustav Nyquist – #38 Boone Jenner – #29 Patrick Laine
#93 Jakub Voracek – #96 Jack Roslovic – #28 Oliver Bjorkstrand
#16 Max Domi – #7 Sean Kuraly – #17 Justin Danforth
#59 Yegor Chinakhov – #34 Cole Sillinger – #23 Brendan Gaunce
#8 Zach Werenski – #2 Andrew Peeke
#44 Vladislav Gavrikov – #46 Dean Kukan
#53 Gabriel Carlsson – #22 Jake Bean
Starter: #90 Elvis Merzlikins
#30 Jean-Francois Berube
Injured/Out: Eric Robinson, Alexandre Texier, Joonas Korpisalo, Adam Boqvist, Daniil Tarasov