After another high-scoring win over Seattle, the Maple Leafs are looking for a third-straight victory as they welcome an Arizona Coyotes team that has surprised of late with three consecutive wins of their own (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).
With 17 goals in their last two games, the Coyotes have raised eyebrows around the league with the unexpected goal outburst in an 8-5 win against Ottawa followed by a 9-2 win against Detroit. Nick Schmaltz leads the team with an eye-popping four goals and 11 points in those two games, while his linemate on the top line and the team’s leading scorer, Clayton Keller, tallied three goals and three assists.
Some things in life are a given, and one of those givens is former Leaf players enjoying some element of immediate success with their new teams, so it was no surprise to see Nick Ritchie put up five points, including three goals, in his first five games with the Coyotes.
The trade has worked out for both sides thus far, though, with Ilya Lyubushkin adapting quickly into a regular role on the blue line for the Leafs. All things considered, the Leafs should still be happy about ridding themselves of the final year of Ritchie’s contract while addressing a clear need on the right side of their blue line for the stretch drive and playoffs.
Ritchie is one of six former Leafs on the Coyotes roster, five of whom are likely to play tonight. Of course, that group includes Phil Kessel, who was allowed to keep his games-played streak alive against the Red Wings on Tuesday before he departed after one shift to be with his partner for the birth of their child.
With his consecutive games played streak sitting at 956, Kessel sits third all-time in that category but is perpetually 20 games behind the still-active leader, Keith Yandle. Despite continuing to be one of the poorest defensive players on his team and seeing his possession numbers dwindle, Kessel is still an offensive weapon. He sits fourth on Coyotes in GAR contributed through offense with six goals and 28 assists in 56 games this year, per evolving-hockey.
In an attempt to balance out the lineup and experiment with more options as they head into the playoffs, Sheldon Keefe has shaken up his forward group outside of the red-hot top line. The Tavares and Nylander combo will be split up for just the second time this season (the first time lasted 1.5 games). While they haven’t dropped off statistically in any major way as of late, it’s clear that neither player — Nylander, in particular — is playing with the same confidence offensively as they were earlier in the season while giving up too much in their own end.
Nylander will reunite with Alex Kerfoot on a line with Wayne Simmonds, while Tavares will remain with Nick Robertson and be joined by Ondrej Kase. Kerfoot and Nylander found success together in a big role anchoring the Leafs‘ second line after John Tavares was injured in game one of last year’s playoffs; Keefe admitted he is looking to rekindle that chemistry tonight.
With the news that Jack Campbell has been nursing a rib injury that took a turn for the worse last game, it will be Petr Mrazek’s first chance to take over the net for an extended run of time. So far, due to injuries and Campbell’s stellar play earlier in the season, Mrazek hasn’t started more than two consecutive games. With a sub .900 save percentage on the year, Mrazek will have a chance to change the narrative on a season where he hasn’t really had the opportunity to take the reins and establish a rhythm.
At the other end of the ice, the Coyotes will be starting their 1B goaltender Scott Wedgewood tonight. The 29-year-old Wedgewood has made 20 starts to Karel Vejmelka’s 31, but he has slightly better numbers this season.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on when he found out about Jack Campbell’s injury:
We knew that he tweaked something a week-or-so ago and he aggravated that the other night in our game. We knew that he was uncomfortable after the game. Yesterday, he wasn’t feeling a lot better.
He went for some tests and ultimately found out this morning that he’s going to need some time.
Keefe on how ready he thinks Petr Mrazek is for a run of starts with Jack Campbell injured:
I think he’s in a good place. For a guy like him that’s been in the league and played a lot throughout his career, [he] knows he’s going to get a lot of opportunities here. This situation right here is exactly why you sign a guy like Petr to partner with Jack. Here we are.
Keefe on why he’s broken up Nylander and Tavares while aiming for a more balanced look:
When I look at it, we’ve had two lines that have been really thriving. The Matthews line, obviously, but the Kampf line with Engvall and Mikheyev there has been outstanding for us.
Then we’ve had two other lines — both John’s line and the line that had Simmonds and Spezza there — be not as good. We need to be a team where four lines are going. We’re not there, so this is just an attempt to do that.
Obviously, we did that a little while ago as well, in terms of spreading things out a bit. We had that Kerfoot-Nylander chemistry there — obviously, those guys did really well for us in the playoffs last year as a pair, so we have that.
Keefe on Alex Kerfoot’s consistency this year and why he’s reunited the Kerfoot-Nylander combo:
With Kerfoot specifically, you look at the type of season he’s having — he’s on pace for about 50 points with no power-play time and has done everything we’ve asked of him as a player.
Now we’ve asked him to play center again. We’ve moved things around that way and put [Nylander] with him. We’ll see what we have there.
It also gives us an opportunity to get Kase back up with John and keep Robertson in that place as well. It’s a good chance for us to move things around in an effort to get two more lines going.
Keefe on what made him split up Tavares and Nylander:
Both guys, in their own ways, haven’t played up to their individual standards. When that happens, the line is going to suffer, obviously.
It’s not just that it hasn’t produced at a high level; it’s that they’ve been scored on a lot as a group. That’s not good enough. We need to shake things up and see what can come of it when we have this type of look.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #91 John Tavares – #25 Ondrej Kase
#88 William Nylander – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
Starter: #35 Petr Mrazek
#50 Erik Kallgren
Extras: Kyle Clifford, Jason Spezza
Injured/Out: Rasmus Sandin, Jack Campbell
LTIR: Jake Muzzin
Arizona Coyotes Projected Lines
#9 Clayton Keller – #72 Travis Boyd – #8 Nick Schmaltz
#12 Nick Ritchie – #29 Barrett Hayton – #21 Loui Eriksson
#17 Alex Galchenyuk – #63 Matias Maccelli – #81 Phil Kessel
#67 Lawson Crouse – #36 Christian Fischer – #23 Hudson Fasching
#14 Shayne Gostisbehere – #61 Dysin Mayo
#62 Janis Moser – #86 Anton Stralman
#92 Vladislav Kolyachonok – #6 Jakob Chychrun
Starter: #31 Scott Wedgewood
#70 Karel Vejmelka
Injured: Conor Timmins, Jay Beagle, Dmitrij Jaskin, Johan Larsson, Antoine Roussel