After a pitiful effort on Tuesday against the Sabres, the Maple Leafs will attempt to return to winning ways when they play host to the Washington Capitals tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. EST, TSN4).

The duality of the Toronto Maple Leafs never ceases to amaze, as they followed up a dominant couple of weeks of winning hockey against mostly high-end competition with one of their poorer efforts of the season, losing 5-2 to the Buffalo Sabres. Right from the opening faceoff, the Leafs lacked the intensity necessary to compete with a team that on paper is nowhere close to their talent level in what was a continuation of their habit of playing down to inferior competition. 

Within the Atlantic Division, Toronto leads the pack with a .667 winning percentage against playoff teams. However, they also rank behind all their rivals with the worst winning percentage against non-playoff teams in the group. Perhaps taking on a team that currently holds a playoff spot — the 2018 Stanley Cup champs — is exactly what Toronto needs to bounce back tonight against Washington.

The Capitals are in the midst of an impressive four-game win streak, beating Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Boston, before crushing Philadelphia by a score of 9-2 on Tuesday. The Capitals are also seeking to prolong a road-winning streak of five games dating back to mid-March. A win in Toronto would push that to six-straight road wins, which would be their longest such streak of the season, beating a separate five-game road win streak from January 28 to February 17. Since the dawn of the new year, Washington is 12-4-2 on the road. 

Washington currently holds a 15-point lead over the Islanders for the last wildcard spot in the East. They also sit just three points back of the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division with two games in hand. Like all other playoff-bound teams in the East, qualifying for the postseason is almost certain. What’s less sure is where they will finish in the standings and who their opponent will be in the first round. 

That also certainly applies to the Leafs, as their position in second in the Atlantic is by no means guaranteed. They fortunately still hold a four-point lead over Tampa Bay and a five-point lead over Boston as all three teams lost in regulation on Tuesday. With all three also having all played 73 games thus far, home ice in the first round is Toronto’s to lose at this point. 

Despite throwing all the lines in a blender during Tuesday’s loss, Sheldon Keefe is returning to a lineup he’s used multiple times in the last few weeks. The top three forward lines will be the same as they have been. The fourth line will see Spezza and Abruzzese both get swapped out for Clifford and Simmonds. The defensive pairs are reverting back to what worked in previous games: Rielly and Lyubushkin will serve as the top pair, Muzzin and Brodie as the second pair, and Giordano and Liljegren as the third pair. It appears Justin Holl will serve as a healthy scratch in this one.

Jack Campbell will return to the net after Erik Källgren made back-to-back starts. This will be Campbell’s first start on home ice since March 8 against Seattle. 

On the other side of the ice, Ilya Samsonov takes the start for the Capitals having won each of his past five starts dating back to March 18. However, across those five starts, he has just a .887 save percentage with his highest single-game performance in this stretch being a .906 against Pittsburgh on Saturday. 

This is the second of two meetings between these teams this season. In the first matchup, the Leafs stormed out to a 3-1 lead after the first period before back-to-back Tom Wilson goals evened the score. With just over three minutes left in the game, Rasmus Sandin scored the game-winning goal off a great pass from Justin Holl before a Pierre Engvall empty-netter sealed the game for Toronto.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on similarities between Matthews and Ovechkin:

They both shoot it in the net a lot. I mean, there’s that. They’re obviously both very passionate about scoring goals and love to score, clearly. They play different positions and they play differently for sure.

Obviously, Ovechkin’s as dangerous a shooter maybe as the game’s ever seen off the pass, and the one-timer and those kinds of things. Auston doesn’t score as frequently on that type of shot, but he scores in different ways.

There are differences in their game for sure, but the results seem to be quite similar. Obviously, Ovechkin’s done it for a substantial amount of time and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Keefe on Paul MacLean’s influence around the team:

He’s been in and out of town a few times where he’s been around the team. His role has changed this year from what it was last year, but he’s still following the team and we communicate frequently throughout. He’s watching every game.

I’ve enjoyed having his presence when it’s here, but even when it’s from a distance, I think there’s great value in that — someone with his experience. He’s taking what he learned and what he was a part of with our group last season but is at a distance enough to provide perspective on what he’s seeing, where the team is trending, how we’re playing, or questions that he can ask.

He’s trying to provide more context for himself, but he also makes me think at the same time, so I just think that there’s great value in all that he brings in his role.

Keefe on the defensive pairings:

The way we look at it: We have four left-handed shots that I think are real staples for us on the back end and that leaves two available spots. We like what each (of the right-handed defenders) bring. [Holl], in particular — certainly of all the right shots, but also amongst any of our defense — has probably played as difficult of minutes as any.

Other than Rielly and Brodie for most of the season, Hollsy is right there. He’s played on the penalty kill, which has vastly improved this season. He played defense on the PK more than any guy we have. He brings great value to us there.

And yet you look at what Lyubushkin has brought, his physicality, the way he kills plays, and how great he is defensively. And with Liljegren, there are the steps he’s taking to rounding out his game.

We’ve got some difficult decisions that are good problems for me to have as a coach. From a players’ standpoint, we’re trying to sort through things here and these games are really important for everybody to be at their best.

Keefe on how Blackwell has fit in with the team: 

I’ve liked him. Obviously, we’ve moved a lot of things around. I don’t even know — I’d have to go back to look — if he’s played with the same linemates two games in a row yet. That’s obviously on me in terms of how I move things around there, but I think that’s part of where we’re at in terms of giving different opportunities and getting Clifford back involved in the mix here and having Abruzzese around.

I’ve used [Blackwell] on the wing, and now he’s really sort of evolved into being a centre there for us, which frankly is not necessarily why we acquired him or what we acquired him to do. As it turns out, we’ve given him an opportunity ther. He has played center a lot through his life, he’s comfortable there, he’s good on face-offs, and all of that.

But his versatility is what we talked about when we got him and he’s shown that for us here. He’s helped us on the power play, on the penalty kill, and he’s scored a couple goals. I’ve been happy with him. Obviously, we’re trying to solidify some things around him.

Keefe on inserting Simmonds and Clifford into the lineup together:

I like having those guys in. I think when they’ve been in they’ve done a good job for us. When I look at the Tampa game and the different times they’ve played — whether it’s together or separately — I’ve liked it.

I think Clifford has done really well for us with the speed and physicality that he brings. Simmer, since he’s started to come in and out of the lineup, is really starting to solidify what it is we want to see from him and he’s doing it consistently.

The identity on that line, especially on the wings, is just energy, physicality, presence, and taking advantage of the minutes that they get. That’s what I’m looking for from that line no matter who is in at this point.

Obviously, with Spezza and Abruzzese, it’s a different mix and a different vibe than what it would be tonight. But these guys have played well lately, and I expect today with Blackwell, those guys will have lots of energy, be on their toes, get skating, and get in on the forecheck.

Auston Matthews on facing off against Alex Ovechkin:

It’s pretty fun. iI’s really impressive what he’s been able to do. Guys like him, (Crosby), Patrick Kane just continue to get it done. As the league gets younger and more and more younger guys come in, these guys are still producing at a pretty incredible rate.

Obviously, what he’s been able to do this year is pretty spectacular. He’s been doing it his whole career. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to go up against a guy like him and compete.

Matthews on Ovechkin’s longevity as an elite goal scorer:

It seems like it’s just automatic for him, to be honest. Every season, he’s up there. He scores goals. He knows how to score. His shot is obviously probably the best in the game. He’s able to sit in that spot a lot of the time. You know it’s coming, and you still can’t stop it. 

I just think what he’s been able to do year after year is obviously impressive and a testament to him and his ability.

Matthews on what he took from watching Ovechkin growing up:

I mean, I went yellow laces for a bit. That was probably the main thing — and probably the tape job — but I think the yellow laces have been a pretty big staple of his. I remember doing that for a couple of years for sure.

Colin Blackwell on facing Alex Ovechkin:

Obviously, he’s pretty potent on the power play, and he’s got a really good shot. With the way the game has been going nowadays with a lot of power-play opportunities, I think that’s something you’ve got to be cognizant of: being disciplined, staying out of the box, and eliminating some of those opportunities.

Blackwell on what he’s learned about Matthews since joining the Leafs:

I haven’t played against him too much. I obviously watched them on TV — Mitch as well. I don’t think they get enough credit. I think they’re actually underrated at some of the two-way [game] with the way they play the game defensively as well.

With Auston, some of the stick battles that he wins, he always comes up with the puck no matter who he’s coming up against. Their two-way play is something that gets overshadowed by their offensive game.

Just watching Auston in the faceoff circle, I think he’s one of those guys at the end of the year who should definitely be considered as one of the best two-way players in the league for sure.

Blackwell on what Matthews does so well to win pucks back:

He’s just got such a strong lower body and strong stick. That’s one thing I’ve really been impressed with: just little puck battles with his stick. It seems he’s always finding a way to come up with these loose pucks.

It’s a hard skill and not everyone has that. He just has a nose for sticking his nose down in the ice and coming up with every single loose battle.

Blackwell on how he’s settled in with the Leafs:

I think every single day it’s a growing period for me. It’s a different style of hockey than I’m used to in the sense that usually my game is a lot of forechecking and bringing a lot of energy, chipping pucks behind D, and stuff along those lines. I’m trying to play similar to that, but it’s also a little more possession-based and offensive-minded.

For me, it’s just playing with new players, trying to find that chemistry a little bit with some of the guys I’ve been playing with, and knowing where they’re going to be — stuff along those lines. 

I think I’ve got nine or 10 games under my belt now, and I’m slowly getting more and more comfortable. I got all the systems down pat, I think. The first couple of games were not necessarily overwhelming, but it is a lot of information thrown at you at once coming from one system to another.

Learning some power play, penalty kill, five-on-five stuff — it’s way more comfortable that way, and hopefully, it’s smoother sailing moving forward.

First Round Matchup Odds

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
#43 Kyle Clifford – #11 Colin Blackwell – #24 Wayne Simmonds

#44 Morgan Rielly –  #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#8 Jake Muzzin  – #78 T.J. Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano  – #37 Timothy Liljegren

Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren

Extras: Jason Spezza, Nick Abruzzese, Justin Holl
: Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin, Petr Mrazek

Washington Capitals Projected Lines

#8 Alex Ovechkin – #92 Evgeny Kuznetsov* – #73 Conor Sheary
#90 Marcus Johansson – #19 Nick Backstrom – #77 T.J Oshie
#39 Anthony Mantha – #20 Lars Eller – #43 Tom Wilson
#22 Johan Larsson – #26 Nic Dowd – #21 Garnet Hathaway

#42 Martin Fehervary – #74 John Carlson
#57 Trevor Van Riemsdyk – #3 Nick Jensen
#52 Matt Irwin – #2 Justin Schultz

*Game-time decision

Starter: #30 Ilya Samsonov
#41 Vitek Vanecek

Injured: Carl Haglin, Dmitry Orlov