The Auston Matthews-less Maple Leafs are looking to end a two-game losing skid when they host a Dallas Stars team that is in the thick of the Western Conference wildcard race tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. EST, TSN4).

It’s quite something to contrast the Leafs‘ current record and position in the standings against their goaltending numbers at even strength. They’re now 29th in the NHL in 5v5 save percentage this season, making them the only team in the bottom 10 in the category that is currently in a playoff position (by points percentage) — and not only are they in a playoff spot but they’re currently tied for sixth in the league with 37 wins in 59 games.

That’s the context in which the Leafs will be giving the 25-year-old Erik Källgren his first-ever NHL start tonight. Källgren’s AHL numbers aren’t overly reassuring at first blush (.904), but the team environment is drastically different down on the Marlies, where he’s often been the main reason the team has been competitive on many nights, writes MLHS Marlies writer Mark Rackham:

With the goaltending controversy in Toronto right now, it feels relevant to mention Erik Källgren. For my money, he’s been the Marlies’ best player this season, and in the big club’s current situation, he’s deserving of an NHL start.

He has an excellent demeanour — as unflappable of a goaltender as I’ve seen on the Marlies’ — and I doubt he will be daunted by the challenge. His style isn’t flamboyant with spectacular highlight-reel stops, but Källgren is positionally sound, challenges the shooter well, and is rarely caught deep in his net.

Not for one second am I pretending the Swedish netminder is the answer to Toronto’s prayers in net, but could he come in and do a job in the short term? I believe the answer is yes. Hopefully, we’ll have a better idea about his potential this week.

Källgren is sporting a 15-8-1 record for Marlies team that is 11-12-3 without him between the pipes, which is probably a more indicative stat in terms of Källgren’s ability to stay in the fight and keep the Marlies in games this season.

The Swede was impressively non-plussed when he was thrust into a tough situation with the Leafs down 4-1 to the Arizona Coyotes last Thursday night, giving Sheldon Keefe the confidence to turn to him tonight after yet another poor Petr Mrazek start in the Heritage Classic. Drawing any parallels to James Reimer’s emergence partway through the 2010-11 season after just 11 shots against Källgren is getting miles ahead of ourselves, but we’ll see what the 2021 Le Mat Trophy winner can do tonight.

The debuting Källgren’s presence between the pipes and the loss of Auston Matthews to suspension for two games should have the team’s full attention after they’ve seemingly played down to several lesser opponents during this recent 5-3-2 stretch.

There will be three line combinations that we haven’t seen this season: John Tavares joins Michael Bunting and Mitch Marner; Alex Kerfoot and William Nylander are flanked by Nick Robertson, and Kyle Clifford enters the lineup for the first time since January 19 on a line with Jason Spezza and Ondrej Kase.

The top line should be an interesting watch tonight; Marner and Tavares’ history together shows stronger evidence of chemistry than Nylander’s fit next to Tavares ever has. Kerfoot and Nylander, who have meshed well as a C-RW duo in the past, will be joined by a winger who also likes to play a high-pace game in Nick Robertson.

Any time that we have played without Auston and John has been in this spot, he has been terrific for us. I would expect nothing less tonight.

– Sheldon Keefe

The Leafs have begun tinkering with the fourth unit of late in hopes they can find more traction with their bottom line than they have been getting this season. Keefe will scratch Wayne Simmonds tonight after sitting Jason Spezza for two games last week. He’s given Spezza a little more skill to work with in Ondrej Kase while injecting an energy presence in Clifford, who should have fresh legs after so much time in the press box.

On defense, the Leafs are going to switch Ilya Lybushkin to Morgan Rielly’s right side and move Timothy Liljegren, who played just 10 minutes and change in the Heritage Classic, back next to Rasmus Sandin on the bottom pairing. We may still see some of Liljegren next to Rielly in the higher-leverage offensive situations, particularly if the team is trailing at any point tonight, while Dean Chynoweth leans more on Lyubushkin in defensive-zone situations.

Currently just one point back of the second wild-card spot, the Stars are in a playoff position by points percentage, but they were recently dealt a devastating blow with the loss of stud defenseman Miro Heiskanen indefinitely due to mononucleosis. They should be a desperate team coming off of back-to-back losses, and the Golden Knights’ four-game skid has left the door wide open for them to walk through with their four games in hand.

This will be the first meeting between the two teams in 25 months dating back to February of 2020.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the decision to start Erik Källgren:

We felt really good about his time in the net the last time we were in this building. We made a decision to start Petr in the outdoor game, and I think Petr did a good job for us in that game. But we saw enough in his short time with us and his time in the AHL to give him an opportunity.

Keefe on his early impressions of Källgren:

Very quiet. You don’t hear much from him. He is going about his business. You saw the confidence when he went into the net with no warning or heads up. All of a sudden, you are in there at a time when the game is not going well for us. You saw the confidence there.

The piece I might have been most impressed with that day was how he handled the questions after the game. For a guy who had been dealing with so much and the excitement of going in there, he showed extreme poise and confidence in that moment. It is a big part of that position, particularly when you are a part of the Leafs and in this city. I was really impressed by that.

For all of those reasons, it made sense to give him an opportunity here tonight.

Keefe on Nick Robertson’s play with the big club so far:

He’s made plays. He’s moved his feet. He is giving us everything he has from an effort standpoint. You can never question his effort or competitiveness. He has done a good job of putting himself in spots to get chances.

We have talked to him a little bit about making good on those chances — in particular, hitting the net. In the NHL, it is hard to get scoring chances. He has been able to get them and get clean looks at the net, which is not an easy thing to do for any player in the NHL. He has put himself in those positions. Don’t take them for granted because they don’t come off all that often in the NHL. You have to make good on them.

I am not necessarily saying you need to score, but you have to convert those into shots and real chances. That has really been my message to him. Otherwise, I like a lot about what he has done.

Keefe on the effect Bunting and Marner could have on Tavares’ game:

We’ll see. Not unlike what we talked about when he was playing with Robertson, Kase, or Willy at his best, those two guys are going to move their feet, be involved, and be engaged on every puck and every play. That is going to put John on offense a lot more. We will see the impact that he has.

Any time that we have played without Auston and John has been in this spot, he has been terrific for us. I would expect nothing less tonight.

Keefe on the decision to switch Ilya Lybushkin onto Morgan Rielly’s pairing:

We have liked a lot about Lyubushkin’s game. Defensively, anything that comes into his area seems to be stopped or killed. We like that a lot. The play definitely dies for the opposition and we usually get the puck going the other way. I think he has moved the puck up the ice really well and got it into the hands of the forwards. That is a big part of it.

The other part is that we have found that for Liljegren, it has not gone as well. At times, it looks really good and it is going well, but you can see at times that, as a young player still adjusting to the league, he has had some moments there that make you pause a little bit in terms of keeping him rolling with those heavy minutes and responsibilities.

He didn’t get a lot of time the other night, but once we had him back down with Sandin on that third period, I thought he settled down and did some really good things. That is what we have seen from him in that role and that job — he has done really well with it.

We have given him time up and seen what that looks like. We haven’t really seen it with Lyubushkin. In the short time outdoors the other day, I thought he did do a good job with it. Let’s keep with it.

Keefe on inserting Kyle Clifford into the lineup:

Cliff hasn’t played in a long time here. We are looking for ways to get him involved. He has been a great teammate and has worked extremely hard. He does have something to offer our team. We have chosen to give Robertson a lot of opportunities, which has taken away from Cliff’s ability to get in. We just thought the time was right to make the move and get Cliff in.

We had been playing Simmonds on his off-wing. We just thought getting Cliff in on the fourth line made sense tonight.

Stars head coach Rick Bowness on Jason Robertson playing against his younger brother:

Obviously, it doesn’t happen very often and this is the first opportunity. It is a great night for his family — him and his brother. When the puck drops, there is no family. There are no friends. You do what you have to do to help your team win, and that is the bottom line. He’ll do that.

Bowness on facing a Matthews-less Leafs team:

They still have a great hockey club over there. They have a lot of weapons. They have great leadership. They are very well-coached. Sheldon has done a great job since he has been here with his staff.

It is a tough team. They are fast and very good on the rush. There is no Matthews, and they are still a really explosive, dangerous team. We will have to be really sharp defensively tonight with these guys.

Stars forward Tyler Seguin on facing a debuting goalie:

I don’t think it matters. It tends to go two ways with a new goalie. He’ll be unbelievable, or he’ll be a little shaky. We will get some pucks to him early and kind of figure that out.

When there is a new goalie, there is not much scouting you are going to be looking at. There is nothing to really see unless our coaches did a great job of finding video from somewhere. I’ll probably just be instinctive hockey tonight.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#43 Kyle Clifford – #19 Jason Spezza – #25 Ondrej Kase

#44 Morgan Rielly –  #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#78 TJ Brodie  – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren

Starter: #50 Erik Källgren
#35 Petr Mrazek

Extras: Travis Dermott, Wayne Simmonds
Suspended: Auston Matthews (two games)
Jack Campbell
: Jake Muzzin

Dallas Stars Projected Lines

#21 Jason Robertson – #24 Roope Hintz – #16 Joe Pavelski
#14 Jamie Benn – #91 Tyler Seguin – #47 Alex Radulov
#18 Michael Raffl – #12 Radek Faksa – #34 Dennis Gurianov
#43 Marian Studenic – #11 Luke Glendening – #25 Joel Kiviranta

#20 Ryan Suter – #2 Jani Hakanpaa
#23 Esa Lindell – #3 John Klingberg
#55 Thomas Harley – #44 Joel Hanley

Starter: #29 Jake Oettinger
#31 Adam Scheel

Injuries: Miro Heiskanen, Braden Holtby, Andrej Sekera