Coming off of impressive back-to-back victories, rookie goaltender Erik Källgren hopes to keep the Maple Leafs riding high as Auston Matthews returns to the lineup to take on the Predators tonight in Nashville (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
With the trade deadline just days away, Erik Källgren has been given an enormous opportunity this past week. Between Jack Campbell’s rib injury and Petr Mrazek’s shaky play, Källgren has seen multiple starts come his way and has taken advantage of his opportunity thus far. The 25-year-old Swede has won both games, including a shutout on Tuesday against the Stars and stopping 34-of-36 shots in the victory over the Hurricanes on Thursday, breathing confidence into the team with a comfort level between the pipes that belies his NHL pedigree.
Due to his steady performances this week, Sheldon Keefe is giving Källgren yet another game against Nashville, the final game before the trade deadline for the Leafs. It remains to be seen if the Leafs will make a move in goal, but as Elliotte Friedman said on Thursday’s broadcast, Källgren has bought the Leafs some extra time with his play.
The big news heading into this game, however, is the return of Auston Matthews fresh off of serving a two-game suspension for cross-checking Rasmus Dahlin in the waning moments of the Heritage Classic. Despite missing his fourth and fifth games of the season, Matthews still sits atop the NHL in goal scoring with a healthy cushion beneath him. 45 on the season gives the Leafs’ superstar a five-goal lead for the Rocket Richard trophy ahead of Leon Draisaitl and Chris Kreider.
Heading into tonight’s tilt, Nashville is currently tied for third place in the Central Division with the Minnesota Wild, and they sit comfortably in the top wildcard spot in the west. The Leafs, winners of two in a row, will face a Predators team that has been in pretty good form as of late.
Nashville had won five of six games before losing on Thursday against the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 5-4. Their top line is coming in red hot, with Matt Duchene riding an eight-game point streak (eight goals, 15 points) and Filip Forsberg riding a five-game point streak (five goals, 10 points). On the backend, Roman Josi is firing at a ridiculous clip during his eight-game point streak with 19 points in those games, including 14 points at even strength.
The Predators seem poised to start Jusse Saros in goal on Saturday, who boasts an impressive .923 save percentage this season over a whopping 51 starts through 61 games. However, in two of his past three starts, Saros has given up five goals and held a sub-.850 save percentage, so perhaps the Leafs are catching him at a good time. Saros has only had a sub-.900 save percentage in back-to-back games on three occasions this season, with the latest coming Feb. 15 and 18 against Washington and Carolina.
The Leafs’ lineup will see a little bit of a shakeup heading into this game. Matthews will return to his spot between Michael Bunting and Mitch Marner on the top line — “it wouldn’t be fair to Auston not to,” said Sheldon Keefe — while John Tavares, fresh off of a productive couple of games on the top line, will try to sustain his momentum as he slides back down to the second line between William Nylander and Ondrej Kase. In order to keep the excelling third line intact, Alexander Kerfoot will move down to the fourth line, which then bumps Nick Robertson out of the lineup.
The other notable change comes on the backend with the return of Travis Dermott to the lineup after missing three straight games, and Timothy Liljegren will take a night off to make way. As his name swirls in the rumour mill, Dermott will play on the third pair with Rasmus Sandin.
The Leafs won the first matchup with the Predators this season with a 3-0 victory back on Nov. 16 in Toronto. Matthews opened the scoring in that one on the power play, rifling home a snap-shot after receiving a cross-ice pass from William Nylander. The Leafs added a pair of goals late in the third courtesy of David Kampf and Mitch Marner, and Jack Campbell recorded a 24-save shutout.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge presented by the Nashville Predators:
First of all, their best offensive people are really feeling it. They have lots of confidence and are producing at a high rate. They are very dangerous, whether it is their top forward line or Josi and what he brings. He is a very unique and special defenseman in terms of what he adds offensively. He is as dangerous as anybody in the league in that sense. You have to be conscious of that.
They play a good, hard, structured, committed game throughout their lineup with good goaltending. There are definitely challenges there. It has been a long time since we have seen them, but we have great respect for what they have done throughout the season. We are going to have to be ready.
Keefe on accounting for the threat of Roman Josi (72 points in 59 GP):
You certainly have to be aware when he is on the ice. There are some little things you have to be aware of: take away his space, try to keep the puck out of his hands, and try to clog the ice up as much as possible through the neutral zone — all of those kinds of things you are conscious of.
Those are all things you talk about every game, no matter who you are playing. It is heightened awareness in those areas when you are playing against a player of his calibre.
Keefe on how Travis Dermott has handled coming in and out of the lineup:
I think he has handled it well in the sense that he has had a good attitude through it and all of that. He has played well at times. This most recent stretch that he has had while Sandin was out for a while there and he was playing regularly was as good as he has played all season. He did a really good job for us.
We made the decision to get Sandin back involved. We wanted to give Sandin and Liljegren a good run there. As you guys know, we have had basically seven defensemen all season. We have tried to remain committed to keeping guys involved and not having people sit for too long.
Dermott has been in that mix all season. That is part of why he goes back in today. We think he has done a good job and he is a capable player for us coming in. We are confident no matter who is in or out that those guys can do the job for us.
Predators head coach John Hynes on his team’s loss to the Flyers and the challenge against the Leafs:
I would like to see us be mentally ready to play the way we need to play. We have a certain identity that we play with. It starts with everyone taking ownership in their preparation and mindset to be able to compete at the level that gives us a chance to win.
Our attention to detail, and the way we play with the puck and our puck management, is going to be important tonight against a team that has some great offensive players and a quick-strike transition attack.
Our details without the puck weren’t where they needed to be in the Philly game, and therefore, we weren’t able to play the game that we want to be able to play.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #25 Ondrej Kase
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kampf – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#43 Kyle Clifford – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #23 Travis Dermott
Starter: #50 Erik Källgren
#35 Petr Mrazek
Extras: Timothy Liljegren, Wayne Simmonds, Nick Robertson
Injured: Jack Campbell
LTIR: Jake Muzzin
Nashville Predators Projected Lines
#9 Filip Forsberg – #92 Ryan Johansen – #95 Matt Duchene
#28 Eeli Tolvanen – #64 Mikael Granlund – #11 Luke Kunin
#13 Yakov Trenin – #10 Colton Sissons – #84 Tanner Jeannot
#21 Nick Cousins – #47 Michael McCarron – #26 Philip Tomasino
#59 Roman Josi – #55 Philippe Meyers
#14 Mattias Ekholm – #45 Alexandre Carrier
#17 Ben Harpur – #57 Dante Fabbro
Starter: #74 Juuse Saros
#33 David Rittich
Injuries: Mark Borowiecki, Matt Benning