Coming off of a sloppy but winning performance against the Flyers, the Maple Leafs continue their road trip by visiting their most likely first-round playoff opponent in the Tampa Bay Lightning (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Tied in the standings with an equal number of games played, tonight’s contest should be a fun and competitive potential round one preview. Of course, it’s far from a certainty with Boston sitting only two points back of both teams, but it’s an extra-interesting measuring stick game nonetheless.
After missing practice yesterday with an illness, William Nylander will be a game-time decision and may miss his first game of the season. If he can’t go, it looks likely that Nick Abbruzzese would join David Kampf and Pierre Engvall in Nylander’s spot. Based on how they practiced yesterday, Kyle Clifford would join Wayne Simmonds and Colin Blackwell on the fourth line.
Jason Spezza missing a second straight game as a healthy scratch is a bit curious. It’s the second time in a month that Spezza has sat out two games in a row. It could be their designed rest regimen, he could be dealing with a minor injury and the team is giving him extra time off amidst a very busy part of the schedule, or it could be that his place in the lineup is less secure given the presence of Nick Abruzzese and Colin Blackwell. Time will tell.
According to Sheldon Keefe, Jake Muzzin is ready to return but will sit out tonight before entering the lineup tomorrow against the Panthers. Therefore, Toronto’s defense pairs should look the same as they did on Saturday.
Like the Leafs, the Lightning didn’t play too well in their last matchup, but they managed to get squeeze a point out of it. After going up 2-0 on the Habs in the first, Tampa gave up three even-strength goals in the second period and another in the third before a scoreless overtime. Montreal ended up grabbing the extra point in the shootout in a game where they owned 57% of the xGoals at 5v5.
After allowing three on 32 shots in the win over the Flyers, Jack Campbell will receive his second consecutive start for the Leafs after returning from LTIR. Presumably, Erik Källgren will take the start against the Panthers tomorrow.
Tonight is not the first of a back-to-back for Tampa like it is for the Leafs, so there’s no reason not to expect Andrei Vasilevskiy to make his 54th start of the season. The 27-year-old has maintained his usual level of play this season with a 35-14-4 record and a .919 save percentage and hasn’t been pulled once in 53 games.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on whether Tampa is a different team now versus their championship-winning squad from last season:
[They’re] pretty similar. Obviously, the additions they made at the deadline give them increased depth and everyone slots in well for them that way. It goes without saying how difficult their top six are, the depth and versatility they have on defense, and strong goaltending. They’re obviously a formidable opponent and we’ll have to be at our best.
Keefe on whether Auston Matthews could score 70 goals in the league:
I just don’t think you can put any limitations on someone like him with the ability that he has and the drive that he has. You look at the pace that he’s played as here, especially the last 40-50 games or so, I don’t think you can put a limit on that. It’s pretty rare, obviously, especially in this era, but I think there’s no limits on him. He’s extremely driven and obviously very talented and continues to get better.
[Continuted…] We’ve been winning lots of games and he contributes in so many different ways and he scores in so many different ways. At times, he’s manufacturing his own goals in his own space. Other times, he’s working with his linemates. Mitch has been great at finding him in good spots. He’s forechecking, tracking, forcing turnovers, and doing all the things that lead to goals and giving himself those opportunities to score.
Keefe on the defensive ability of the Lightning:
Firstly, you’ve got to get through their team. They defend really well as a group in front of [Vasilevskiy], they play hard, and they don’t give you a lot of space or time. That in itself is a challenge — you don’t get a lot of great looks.
The obvious thing is [getting] traffic tips and deflections — a bit of randomness happening around the goalie. Those are the things that tend to work well against goalies with the ability of [Vasilevskiy].
Lightning head coach John Cooper on the importance of tonight’s game:
What is it, game 69? It is what it is. Yes, it’s the Leafs. Yes, we’re really tight in the standings, but this game isn’t more paramount than the Montreal game was, nor is it more paramount than the Washington game. You’ve heard me say it a thousand times — it’s more or less [about] getting our game in order against an elite opponent.
The one test for me is that they’re a top-five team in special teams. That’ll be a good test for us — It’ll be really nice if we don’t take penalties tonight. It’s always fun playing these guys. They’re always fun games and they’re exciting, so it’ll be a good test.
Cooper on Auston Matthews’ scoring ability and his historic goal pace:
Auston is probably the best in the league at changing his angle at a high rate of speed. He’s not a traditional, “It’s on my stick so I’m going to shoot it.” He shoots in from his ankles, he shoots it out wide, and the release and the velocity is big time. You’d have to ask a goalie, but it just seems to me he’s shooting from so many different angles.
He’s not afraid to shoot — that’s how you get 50 or 60 goals a year. You don’t care and you’re just going to keep shooting. When you have that arsenal of weapons with the way he shoots, I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in his career he gets 70. That’s how good a scorer he is.
First-Round Opponent Probabilities — from HockeyViz
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#26 Nick Abruzzese – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#43 Kyle Clifford – #11 Colin Blackwell – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren
Extras: Jason Spezza, William Nylander*
Injured: Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin
LTIR: Jake Muzzin, Petr Mrazek
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
#91 Steven Stamkos – #21 Brayden Point – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#18 Ondrej Palat – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #17 Alex Killorn
#38 Brandon Hagel – #20 Nick Paul – #79 Ross Colton
#14 Patrick Maroon – #41 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare – #10 Corey Perry
#77 Victor Hedman – #44 Jan Rutta
#98 Mikail Sergachev – #81 Erik Cernak
#24 Zach Bogosian – #52 Cal Foote
Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliot
Injured/Out: Ryan McDonagh