After another MVP-level performance from Auston Matthews pushed the Maple Leafs over the top in Dallas, Toronto returns home with a chance to clinch a playoff berth against the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
All eyes were on Auston Matthews on Thursday night as the Maple Leafs’ star set a new franchise record for goals in a season by scoring his 55th and 56th goals, the latter being the overtime winner to send the Leafs home happy with a 4-3 victory. Now, Toronto is in a position to clinch a playoff spot with a win against a team that has given them problems this season; the Montreal Canadiens.
Montreal comes into Saturday night having won two of their past three games, with their latest win being a convincing 7-4 victory over the Devils on Thursday. As has been the case with Montreal lately, they were led by the duo of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, both of whom scored and added an assist. Caufield rides into Toronto on a three-game goal streak, closing in on the 20-goal and 40-point plateaus as the end of his rookie season draws near.
That duo seems to be carrying a lot of the load, though. Since the last time these two teams met on March 26, Montreal has a record of 2-3-1, which is better than their overall 2021-22 season standard. However, they haven’t exactly played fantastic hockey at five on five, where they have a CF% of just 42.7 — last in the league– and an xGF% of 43.1, which is third last.
What has been going right for Montreal is that the pucks are going in for them. The Canadiens have scored 20 goals in their past six games (3.33 per game), which is well up from their average of 2.61 goals per game over the course of the season. This recent bump in goal scoring appears destined to come back down to earth, as the Canadiens have been shooting 11.3% in this six-game stretch, which is up from their average of 8.8%. Montreal has been better offensively, but it doesn’t appear to be sustainable.
Toronto has also experienced a recent offensive outburst to a more extreme degree. The Leafs have scored a whopping 40 goals in their last seven games since their last meeting against Montreal, which is an insane 5.7 goals per game. Of those 40, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have scored a combined 13 goals.
The Leafs, like the Canadiens, are also likely due for a little offensive regression as the season wraps up, but Toronto boasts the second-best offense and fourth-highest shooting percentage; meaning, even with some regression, they still have one of the most potent offensive attacks in the league.
Putting the puck in the net is certainly last on the list of concerns facing Sheldon Keefe right now. Keeping the puck out is more the question he and the Leafs are looking to answer after allowing 21 goals in their last six games.
On Thursday, despite dominating possession and playing a solid defensive game that limited Dallas to very few scoring chances, they still gave up three goals. The first was a bit of a fluke in which Tyler Seguin lost possession of the puck and it still slipped under Jack Campbell and into the net. On the second goal, John Klingberg was left on an island all by himself for a one-timer. On the third goal, Joe Pavelski gained positioning on T.J. Brodie in front and deflected a shot that was headed five feet wide into the net to tie the game.
Everyone has been up in arms about the Leafs‘ poor goaltending this season, which has been valid at points, but the attention to detail, particularly around the front of the net, could still be improved as the Leafs head into the final stretch of tune-up games for the playoffs.
After Thursday’s win, the Leafs are sticking with almost the exact same lineup. The only change comes on the fourth line, where Spezza will draw in and Abruzzese will be a healthy scratch. Spezza will also subsequently reclaim his spot on the second power-play unit. The rest of the lines and defensive pairs remain the same.
In goal, Erik Källgren will take the start as he looks for a better result than his previous game in Florida where he gave up three goals — one particularly weak one on the 5-3 tally — before taking a hard shot to the head that forced him out of the game.
On the other side of the ice, it appears Jake Allen will once again get the start for Montreal. After having an incredible hot streak at the end of March, Allen has cooled off a bit with back-to-back games under a .900 save percentage and a game with a .902 being his most recent starts. He has also given up at least three goals in his past five starts and up at least four goals in four of those five.
That said, Allen was spectacular in the last meeting between these two teams. After allowing an Auston Matthews one-timer by him in the opening minute, Allen stopped almost everything the rest of the way, finishing the game with 49 saves on 51 shots to lead the Canadiens to a 4-2 win on home ice. This game in Toronto is the final meeting between these two teams, with Montreal leading the season series 2-1.
First Round Opponent Probabilities
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on what he’s expecting in terms of the atmosphere returning home after Matthews’ record-breaking game on Thursday:
I’m sure fans are going to acknowledge it. We got a little bit of a taste of that when he got 50 here. That’ll bring some energy to the game. With Auston specifically, it’s just over a week ago that we were celebrating 50. Now, we’re back four games later, and he’s at 56. It’s been an incredible run for him, so he certainly deserves any and all acknowledgments that will come his way.
Keefe on what areas he thinks Matthews can still grow in:
Well, he’s obviously right at the top of his game right now, as good as he’s been with the offense and things like that. In terms of when we think about the best is yet to come, he’s leading our team to new heights. He — for obvious reasons — is getting great attention, but Mitch Marner has been on an incredible run here as well. And that duo is driving our team to new heights.
That’s what I see in terms of potential and where we can get to in order to take another step as a hockey team. That’s through the remaining games in the regular season, but most importantly, in the playoffs. That’s what it’s about.
I think that’s where Auston’s focus remains through all of this. This is all exciting. As we talked about the other day, it’s part of the regular season journey. You’ve got to be good in these games. You’ve got to build momentum, and ultimately, you’re building confidence so that you can be your best when it counts the most.
Keefe on what it’s like coming into the NHL as a coach midseason:
My experience was that the NHL schedule doesn’t allow much for practice or pause. You’re just consistently preparing for games or recovering from games. That’s a challenge.
The teams (Toronto and Montreal) were in two different situations. We were a team that at the time was outside the playoffs but certainly had great expectations to make its way to the playoffs. The season paused and all of that kind of stuff before we went into the bubble. I would say the lack of practice time and the pace of the schedule is the greatest challenge because you can’t really get a hold of things, but if you recall, a lot of my focus at that time was to just get the team feeling good, confident, positive, and believing in themselves and believing in what we were doing
. From what I’ve gathered, that’s what (Martin St. Louis’) focus has been, and the players have responded. Looking at their roster again this morning prepping for tonight, it’s a good team. They’ve got lots of ingredients left over from last season and they’ve added some players from different organizations. They’ve got reason to believe, and Marty seems like he’s provided them that.
Keefe on differences in the final stretch of the season last year compared to this year:
I try not to think too much about last season. I think this season’s team is different. Some of the players are different. The mindset of our team is different. The experience of last year’s playoff has helped us as well. Having a little more time from trade deadline to end of season this year versus last is beneficial and different.
That’s given us more opportunity, in Giordano’s case, and even Blackwell for that matter. It’s given us a chance to try different things and settle into that.
The division setup was a lot different obviously last year, and we still continue to be in a real battle; I mean, it can still go anywhere in the division. There is lots to continue to play for there, but most importantly, I just want to make sure we are getting our game right and we feel like we’ve been trending in the right direction for a while.
It was a good road trip for us in terms of our results. There are sstill things inside that process that we could do better — in particular in the Florida and Dallas games. Both games we had leads, but the games went to overtime. That’s something we want to make sure we get that taken care of. We’ve been pretty good in that area — we were really good in Tampa in that regard — but you need to do it consistently every time out.
John Tavares on celebrating Matthews’ achievements:
Obviously, it’s a tremendous accomplishment, so it should be celebrated. He’s having a remarkable year. In the last couple of years, he’s just been on another level.
Knowing him, he probably just wants to go out there and play and continue to do what he does. But it should be great, especially with it being a Saturday and whatnot. I think as a group we’re just really happy for him, and the way he shares it amongst his teammates has been great.
Tavares on Matthews’ chance to score 50 in 50:
It’s hard to fathom in today’s game. Knowing the last time it was done, it’s really remarkable to be able to do something like that and to be in the position that he’s in. Obviously (Stamkos) had a 60. I think (Ovechkin) had a 60. [Matthews] is getting close.
Iremember Stammer having some really good runs when he was a perennial 50 (goal scorer), and Ovi has done what he’s done for… his longevity has been incredible. For [Matthews] to do something like that and to have that chance is pretty remarkable.
Tavares on how Montreal has played under St. Louis:
They just seem to have a new energy. They seem to be playing just free and competing. They have always been a team that’s really quick. We knew that last year, and when we’ve played them this year, you see how well they come through the neutral zone with speed, on the counter, and through transitions.
They’re playing hard, competing, and Marty has that type of personality: very intense, very competitive, and is always very driven. I remember being around him at the Olympics and just being very impressed with his professionalism and the person that he is — the work ethic, the level of detail. I’m sure that’s been brought over to him as a coach.
Jason Spezza on Matthews’s pursuit of 50 in 50:
I don’t want to jinx it. Listen, what he’s doing is special to score at this rate. Ovechkin, Stamkos — there’s only a rare group of guys that have done and been in these numbers over the last two decades. It’s very impressive. It speaks to where he is as a player. We feel like the best is yet to come.
Spezza on how Matthews has grown off the ice:
I think he’s a really self-aware person. I think he realizes that he carries a lot of weight in the locker room. He has a lot of conversations with guys just about their game and about the team. He’s a guy that takes the game very seriously and pays attention to everything. He echos the coach’s messages to the group.
Just a tremendous leader. He’s a guy that knows he’s always being watched, so his habits are extraordinary. He’s very self-aware and knows that when you’re as good as he is that there’s a leadership aspect to it, too. He meets it head-on. I’m very impressed by him, and it’s a pleasure playing with him.
Spezza on playing against Nick Suzuki:
Suzuki is a guy who has good details, to begin with. He’s a guy that has got a real complete game. I think you can tell Marty’s encouraging guys to make plays with the puck. They’re scoring lots of goals right now. They’re playing with confidence.
[St. Louis] is a guy that can encourage guys to make plays but also to make the right play at the right time, too. He’s a guy that’s had a lot of success, but you can tell they’re playing with more confidence as a group.
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
#24 Wayne Simmonds – #11 Colin Blackwell – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#8 Jake Muzzin – #78 T.J. Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
Starter: #50 Erik Källgren
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras: Nick Abruzzese, Kyle Clifford, Timothy Liljegren
Injured: Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin
LTIR: Petr Mrazek
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lineup
Cole Caufield #22 – Nick Suzuki #14 – Rem Pitlick #32
Mike Hoffman #68 – Jake Evans #71 – Josh Anderson #17
Joel Armia #40 – Christian Dvorak #28 – Brenden Gallagher #11
Michael Pezzetta #55 – Ryan Poehling #25 – Tyler Pitlick #24
Alexander Romanov #27 – Joel Edmundson #44
Corey Schueneman #64 – David Savard #58
Jordan Harris #54 – Chris Wideman #20
Jake Allen #34
Samuel Montembeault #35
Injured: Jeff Petry, Paul Byron, Justin Barron