with notes from Hudson Scott

After an eventful back-to-back in Tampa Bay and Florida that saw the Maple Leafs grab three of a possible four points despite blowing a 5-1 lead vs. the Panthers, Toronto travels to Dallas for a clash with the Stars as both teams fight for playoff positioning in their respective conferences (8:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).

Tuesday’s overtime loss at the hands of the high-flying Florida Panthers split Maple Leafs‘ fans between whether or not to focus more on the positive or the negative outlook following their trip to the sunshine state. The answer a lot of fans — and Sheldon Keefe — settled on is that three of four points is a success, especially after recent wins over the Panthers, Bruins, and Hurricanes in late March.

The path forward leads to Dallas for a meeting with the Stars as Toronto wraps up a four-game road trip.

Dallas is currently fighting for the final wildcard spot in the west. They hold a one-point edge over Vegas with three games in hand. However, Vegas has been red hot as of late, which has heated up the battle for that second wildcard spot. 

Fortunately for the Stars, they also have been playing well as of late. They have won seven of their last nine games, with three of those victories coming against teams currently in a playoff spot. However, they have only outscored their opponents 27-26 over this stretch, which lines up with their season-long averages of goals for and against per game (2.9 and 2.97 respectively). Their goal differential also coincides with their possession numbers. Dallas is hovering right around 50% in both CF (49.8) and xGF (50.3) at five-on-five over this recent stretch.

For the Leafs, everyone is awaiting the inevitable moment in which Auston Matthews sets the new franchise single-season goals record. He is currently tied with Rick Vaive with 54 goals, with 55 a near certainty. The question is how many he can score in the final 12 games of the season as he pursues the elusive 60-goal mark.

Matthews is also enjoying one of the best point-producing seasons in Leafs’ history. His three-assist outing against Florida moved him up to 95 points on the season, passing Mats Sundin, Vincent Damphousse, and Mitch Marner for the 10th best point total in a single season in Leafs’ history. Matthews is on pace for 112 points in 77 games this season, which would have him finishing with the third-highest point total in a single season in Leafs’ history, only behind Darryl Sittler and Doug Gilmour.

For the team as a whole, this game appears similar in nature to the game against the Jets just a week ago. Playing against a team that is desperate for wins as they fight for their playoff lives. Toronto will use this game and the next few to optimize their lineup as the playoffs rapidly approach.

On Tuesday, Jake Muzzin returned to action with mixed results against the Panthers. He showed some flashes jumping up in the play offensively, even scoring a goal, and he threw his weight around on the boards by laying a few hits. However, he and Justin Holl were a high-event pairing and found themselves on the ice for four goals against, with some issues arising around the front of the net both at even strength and on the penalty kill. 

As a result, Sheldon Keefe is switching up the defensive pairings against Dallas. Lyubushkin draws back into the lineup and will return to play on the top pair with Morgan Rielly, Muzzin will play with Brodie, Giordano will play with Holl, and Timothy Liljegren will be a healthy scratch. The top three forward lines will remain intact, but the rotation on the fourth line continues. Abruzzese and Simmonds will replace Spezza and Clifford, with Blackwell maintaining his spot as the fourth-line center. 

With Liljegren coming out of the lineup, the second power-play unit is receiving a bit of a shakeup as well. Brodie will take his spot on the point, and Abruzzese will join the unit in Spezza’s absence.

In goal, Jack Campbell will make another start after being forced into action on back-to-back nights earlier this week.

At the other end of the rink, after playing in three games for the Devils before getting scooped off of waivers by the Coyotes, Scott Wedgewood is now the backup for Dallas following a deadline acquisition. With Anton Khudobin out for the season and Brayden Holtby out since early March with an injury, Jake Oettinger was carrying the bulk of the workload before Holtby’s injury, but amid a very busy stretch of five games in eight days, Wedgewood will start tonight.

The 29-year-old lost both his starts with the Devils before posting a solid 10-12-2 record and a .911 Sv% with an awful Coyotes team from November to mid-March. He has made two starts for the Stars, stopping 68-of-75 shots and earning a victory in both games.

This is the second and final meeting between these two teams. Their first matchup was on March 15 in which the Leafs won 4-0 — despite not having Auston Matthews — in Erik Källgren’s first career start and victory.

First Round Opponent Probabilities

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on shuffling the D pairs:

Last game, we opted for familiarity coming in on a back-to-back and in a big hockey game with keeping (Giordano) and (Liljegren) together and Rielly-Brodie, Muzzin-Holl. But as we’ve talked about, we need to try different things here. We don’t have a lot of time left, and Muzzin has just come back into our lineup. He’s coming into a lineup that now has Giordano and Lyubushkin in it.

There are a lot of different things happening there that we haven’t had much time to get looks at. That’s all part of it.

Keefe on managing Jack Campell’s workload down the stretch:

I think he can play lots. Obviously, we didn’t want to have to use him the other day, but it is not a full game for him. Sometimes, the actual playing of the game is not the hardest part as much as that may be hard to believe. You’re always on mentally. It’s the whole day; it’s the day before you’re prepping, you’re preparring, and mentally, you’re on. Some of it is the mental break more than anything that can help. So I think he got a bit of that the other day.

In terms of the rest of the schedule, we’ll take it a day at a time kind of thing, but we definitely are going to use two goalies. I think we have one back-to-back remaining here, but aside from that, we will just manage it day-to-day. But we also have to start building up Jack’s workload here again, too, because he hasn’t played much.

Keefe on Michael Bunting’s 14-game goal-scoring drought:

He hasn’t scored, and that’s part of it — it starts to pile up and weigh on you a little bit. He had some terrific chances the other night in Florida and it didn’t go in for him, but he’s not just a passenger on the line. He’s making contributions. He’s picking up points — and they’re not just ‘gimme’ second assists. He’s on the forecheck, he’s on the track, he’s getting loose pucks, and he’s creating havoc around the net.

All season long, I don’t know how many penalties he’s drawn for us, but he draws penalties and that obviously helps his linemates succeed on the power play. He’s doing so many things that are important for our team. To me, he hasn’t missed a beat in those areas, and that’s what I really like about it.

He’s going to score again soo,n and that’ll help him relax a little bit I’m sure, but to me, he’s still been a very impactful player on that line.

Auston Matthews on Mitch Marner’s play during this recent hot streak:

It’s been fun to watch and fun to be out there with him. He’s just playing extremely confident, but he’s doing things the right way. Just on both sides of the puck, its been a lot of fun to watch, and obviously, he’s been incredible for us so far all season long. Especially these last couple months or so, he’s been on fire.

Keefe on whether the familiarity between Muzzin-Brodie made it easier to go back to the pairing tonight:

Yeah, that’s part of it. We thought it was really good in the short time they played together [last year]. They’ve played together a little this year and it wasn’t as good as last season, but it was very strong last season. We didn’t stay with it because we didn’t like how it affected the other pairings for us.

With Giordano’s arrival and the way Lyubshkin has played for us, it gives us some room to look at not just putting Muzzin and Brodie together but seeing what Giordano and Holl look like.

Keefe on the decision to rotate defensemen again tonight:

We don’t have a lot of time remaining here. These 12 games are going to go quickly, and we have to focus on our team and our game. We try to be mindful of what the schedule and the opponents are going to bring and how that might factor in, but generally speaking, no matter who is in of our seven, we think we have three pairs that we don’t hesitate to put in any situation.

It’s more just that we need to try some things and make sure that, by the time these 12 games expire, we know what we want to go with, or that we might have some flexibility to try some things once we get into the playoffs and need to change some things around.

Matthews on his pursuit of the Leafs’ goal record:

Honestly, it hasn’t really weighed on me too much. It was really nice to just have a day off yesterday and spend some time with the guys and just hangout. But it really hasn’t weighed on me too much, I take it game by game and obviously every game I’m trying to create offense, trying to score, and trying to produce and help the team win.

Matthews on Muzzin’s return to the lineup:

He means a lot to this team — his presence, and his experience having won before. He’s a guy that holds guys accountable in the room. I think everytime you’re out there with him he expects you to work and play hard and compete.

I think he definitely boosts a lot of things for us on the backend and just as a team in itself. He’s a big presence, and obviously, he plays physical. That’s something that we’ve been trying to kind of level up over the past couple weeks and last couple months: our phyisicality and trying to stop plays and get in front of guys.

Jake Muzzin on his first game back from injury:

It was good. Pretty fast-paced game to come back to [laughs], but why not just hope into it and see where we’re at? It was a lot of fun. I wish we would have gotten the two points, but it was good to be back out there.

Muzzin on the presence of Mark Giordano on the team:

It’s good. Especially coming into tough games, the guy has been around and he’s experienced a lot, so you have another veteran back there. It’s nice. It’s calming. Like I said, this time of year heading into playoffs, you kind of want that.

Muzzin on watching Matthews continue to tear it up through his injury:

There’s a lot of times in the press box where you have a “what did I just watch” type of vibe. He’s a special player. We’re lucky to have him.

Muzzin on the value of a top-line fixture like Bunting-Matthews-Marner:

It’s healthy. You’ve got guys that are hungry to play and succeed and play well. You [have] the talent, you put the work in, and this is the result you have with two guys pushing each other like that. Bunting is also a great addition — without him, those two don’t click like that, either. It’s a nice line to have.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares  – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#88 William Nylander – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#26 Nick Abruzzese – #11 Colin Blackwell – #24 Wayne Simmonds

#44 Morgan Rielly –  #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#8 Jake Muzzin  – #78 T.J. Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano  – #3 Justin Holl

Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren

Extras: Jason Spezza, Kyle Clifford, Timothy Liljegren
 Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin
: Petr Mrazek

Dallas Stars Projected Lines

#21 Jason Robertson – #24 Roope Hintz – #16 Joe Pavelski
#14 Jamie Benn – #91 Tyler Seguin – #43 Marian Studenic
#25 Joel Kiviranta – #92 Vladislav Namestnikov – #47 Alex Radulov
#18 Michael Raffl – #12 Radek Faksa – #11 Luke Glendening

#44 Joel Hanley – #3 John Klingberg
#20 Ryan Suter – #4 Miro Heiskanen
#55 Thomas Harley – #2 Jani Hakanpaa

Starter: #41 Scott Wedgewood
#29 Jake Oettinger

Injured/out: Esa Lindell, Braden Holtby, Denis Gurianov, Jacob Peterson