With snow and strong winds in the forecast in Hamilton, conditions are likely to be a major factor this afternoon in the Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field (4 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Less than two weeks ago, the Leafs fell to the Sabres 5-1 in their first game back in front of a full-capacity Scotiabank Arena crowd. As rebound games go, the Leafs might prefer this one not to be a windy outdoor setting given it could take some of the skill out of the game. On the other hand, perhaps the new environment and conditions will be a welcome change of focus for a Leafs team that has been inconsistent of late and has been guilty of playing down to weaker opponents.
Currently, the forecast is calling for -2C at puck drop with scattered flurries and winds of 25 km/h with gusts up to 45 km/h. After practice at Tim Horton’s field yesterday, William Nylander said it was, “hard to control [your] stick,” when the wind was blowing.
At the Winter Classic back on January 1st at Target Field in Minneapolis, the average temperature during the game was around -12C in a 6-4 win for the St. Louis Blues. That set a record for coldest temperature during an outdoor NHL game; while it won’t be nearly as cold in Hamilton today, the winds could be a major factor.
Without a doubt, there will be a lot of focus on Petr Mrazek today as well as Sheldon Keefe’s decision to go right back to him in net coming off of Thursday’s debacle. There’s a decent chance that if today’s game were a “normal” one, Sheldon Keefe would have opted to give Erik Kallgren his first NHL start given how visually uncomfortable Mrazek looked in his net on Thursday. But given the spotlight of today’s game, it’s a tough position to thrust a debuting goalie into over a veteran with 300 games of experience in the league, and it’s probably an unnecessary risk to take with a rookie goalie’s confidence. Hopefully, the unique atmosphere for this afternoon’s game helps deflect some of the attention away from Mrazek’s game as he looks to find level ground.
In the Sabres net, it will be the 40-year-old veteran of 669 NHL games Craig Anderson receiving the start. Anderson was starting the majority of the Sabres games earlier in the season before falling injured and missing nearly all of November, December, and January. Since returning at the end of January, Anderson has gone 5-6-0 but has earned three of those wins in his last four games, including Buffalo’s 5-1 win over the Leafs on March 2nd.
In other lineup news, Rasmus Sandin will make his return from injury in place of Travis Dermott. In the five games Sandin has been paired with Ilya Lyubushkin, the pair has an xG rating of over 60%.
Nick Robertson will also sit this afternoon, while Jason Spezza will return on the bottom line with Wayne Simmonds and Alex Kerfoot as the Leafs favour the veterans for this game. That means David Kampf’s line stays intact, while William Nylander starts with John Tavares and Ondrej Kase.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the difficulty of deciding who to scratch for a once-a-season game:
Every decision you have to make is tough, but you have to make them. In Spezza’s case, whether we’re playing outdoors or not, he needs to get back in the lineup. Sandin’s been out a long time; we need to get him back going with our team, so they’re natural decisions for me.
Robertson and Dermott have been in for a while here, and I think they’ve done a good job for us, but we had to make some decisions. It’s almost like, for a game like this, you wish they could expand the rosters and get everyone involved.
Keefe on the weather conditions today:
The wind was a pretty significant factor out there, so that was probably the biggest adjustment of all given it’s affecting the sticks and it’s affecting the pucks.
We didn’t get a real sense of what it would be like in the sun and the daylight or any shadows that might be there. It doesn’t seem like it was [sunny] for Buffalo’s practice, so there will be some of that to adjust to.
You’ve just got to be ready to compete. Whatever the game is going to be and whatever the conditions are, it’s going to be the same for both teams. It’s not going to be the same as what you’d see out of a regular NHL game.
The conditions are unpredictable and they may change from shift to shift if not period to period. We’ve just got to focus on playing as a team and have some fun with this event and everything that it is. At the same time, we need to recognize that two important points are at stake.
John Tavares on the tough conditions at practice:
No question they were challenging. It’s not what you’re used to, so you’ve just kind of got to embrace it and enjoy it. I’m sure it’s been talked about a lot, but [we need] to just keep things simple. The feel of the puck, the feel of the ice, the wind, possibly snow, the cool air — all those things will factor in a certain way. It’s about trying to simplify that and adapt as best you can.
Keeping the game in front of you, keeping it simple… You don’t want to overthink it or do too much. Like I said, you need to enjoy it. If you enjoy it, you seem to feel better and — whatever presents itself — you just take it as it comes and meet that challenge.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #25 Ondrej Kase
#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
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
Starter: #35 Petr Mrazek
#50 Erik Kallgren
Extras: Kyle Clifford, Nick Robertson, Travis Dermott
Injured: Jack Campbell
LTIR: Jake Muzzin
Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines
#53 Jeff Skinner – #72 Tage Thompson – #89 Alex Tuch
#71 Victor Olofsson – #37 Casey Mittelstadt – #21 Kyle Okposo
#19 Peyton Krebs – #24 Dylan Cozens – #29 Vinne Hinostroza
#74 Rasmus Asplund – #20 Cody Eakin – #15 John Hayden
#26 Rasmus Dahlin – #10 Henri Jokiharju
#23 Mattias Samuelsson – #78 Jacob Bryson
#8 Robert Hagg – #13 Mark Pysyk
Starter: #41 Craig Anderson
#31 Dustin Tokarski
Injuries: Colin Miller, Zemgus Girgensons, Will Butcher, Drake Caggiula, Malcolm Subban