Gunning for a fifth-straight win, the Maple Leafs begin a three-games-in-four-days road trip with a possible preview of their round-one matchup against the 46-22-8 Tampa Bay Lightning (8 p.m. EST, TSN4).
Mired in a mediocre stretch of form dating back to March 1 (12-11-2), the Lightning have been following an ugly trend in their games against playoff opposition as of late. We’ve talked plenty in the past month about the difference in the Leafs‘ record against playoff clubs compared to the other three elite Atlantic Division teams, and the gap has only grown in the last couple of weeks.
Of Tampa’s last 25 games dating back to March 1st, only one of their 12 wins came against a playoff team (the Carolina Hurricanes) — the other 11 came against the Kraken, Red Wings, Islanders, Blackhawks x2, Sabres, Ducks, Canucks, Jets x2, and Senators. Dating back to the start of March, Tampa has lost games to Dallas, Boston x2, Washington, Toronto, Carolina, NYR, Calgary, Edmonton, and Pittsburgh.
The first-place Panthers have played almost exclusively bottom-half teams lately, but they have taken full advantage. They have won 14-of-15 games while playing the Leafs twice, losing 5-2 in Toronto and then winning 7-6 in overtime in Sunrise.
If the Leafs can come out of this final trip to Florida with another pair of wins after a successful visit a few weeks ago, they would have made quite a statement heading into the playoffs, particularly knowing Auston Matthews will miss at least one of the two games — he has been ruled out for tonight — and backup Erik Källgren will take the start in Tampa. That said, it’s clear where the team’s priorities lie at the moment, and that’s with staying as fresh and healthy as possible for when the real deal kicks off in two weeks’ time.
While the message on Matthews’ injury continues to be that it is a very minor issue, he will miss another game tonight. The pursuit for 60 goals is still alive with four games left to go after tonight, and we’re still two weeks out from the start of round one, but it won’t put minds at ease that Matthews is sitting out for a third-straight game. An abundance of caution continues to be the description from Sheldon Keefe.
The Leafs did not practice yesterday, so there won’t be much of an indication on the lines before warmups. Kyle Clifford will draw back into the lineup, possibly on a line with Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds. Keefe also confirmed that Nick Abruzzese will be a healthy scratch.
The Leafs head coach clarified the goalie situation for this week: Erik Källgren will start tonight before Jack Campbell returns to the net against the Panthers on Saturday. Källgren will finish out the road trip on Sunday as Keefe indicated they wanted to avoid giving Campbell the start on the second of a back-to-back in D.C.
Källgren is now 6-3-1 on the season with a .895 Sv%.
For the Lightning, Andrei Vasilevskiy is expected to start, but it has not been officially confirmed as of yet. The 27-year-old Vezina winner has battled an uncharacteristic and untimely string of poor form as of late, losing five-of-six starts (1-4-1) while giving up 20 goals.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the likelihood that his team will face the Lightning in round one:
Obviously, we’re aware that the potential is there for sure. I think we had a similar type of mindset when we were in here not too long ago. You think about that today, but at the same time, as much as there is that potential, we’re focused on the fact that it’s a regular season game on the road here against a team that we had success against the last time we were here. We expect them to be a lot better tonight.
Keefe on what his team did well last time they were in Tampa:
I liked that we got on top of them early, were able to score, and played with the lead a lot in the game. We pulled away in the back half of the game, but one of the things we talk about as a team is that it’s a much tighter game than the score ended up being.
We got some really good saves from Jack, and that allowed us to stay even in the game. They had some great opportunities in that game to go ahead, and we got some great saves that allowed us to stick around and then pull away from there. The game itself was a lot tighter, especially in the first 30 minutes or so, than what it ended up being.
As much as we feel good about the result we got here and how we played, we recognize that in order to consistently win against team’s of this calibre, we have to be even better than last time.
Keefe on the goalie rotation this week:
We looked at the schedule for this week, more specifically to Jack. We kind of worked backwards. We started with Sunday given the Washington game on a back-to-back — it’s some of the toughest travel we’ve had on a back-to-back all season. That was one game for certain that we didn’t want Jack to play.
We worked backwards from there, which led us to Jack playing against Philadelphia the other night and then Källgren today.
Keefe on why he feels he can rely on Erik Källgren down the stretch:
My first instinct on it was that he’s even keel, he’s calm, and he’s confident in himself. He’s done a good job for us in games. He’s helped us win important games. He’s found a level of consistency. If you look at some of the numbers and stats, I don’t think they speak to the fact that he’s played good hockey for us.
He’s made good saves when we’ve had breakdowns and helped us win games. He has a great opportunity here — probably a greater opportunity than he ever thought he’d get here, but he’s prepared himself for it.
Lightning head coach John Cooper on the Leafs heading into the playoffs:
I don’t think anything you say about the Leafs is going to matter to anyone outside of this room unless they do better in the playoffs. Everybody here is saying that about them.
For me, I see a hell of a hockey team. They’ve been a hell of a hockey team that’s run into some bad breaks come the Spring. It seems that, for whatever reason, they haven’t gotten over the hump yet, but they’ve got a team that definitely can. I think there’s some similarities [to recent Leaf teams] because they’ve kept their core together.
They beat good teams. They play with structure. It’s for you guys to judge. I think they’re as good of a team as we’ve played all year.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines*
official lines not known until line rushes in warmups
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #47 Pierre Engvall
#58 Michael Bunting – #64 David Kampf – #11 Colin Blackwell
#43 Kyle Clifford – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#78 T.J. Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #50 Erik Källgren
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras: Nick Abruzzese, Kristians Rubins
Injured: Jake Muzzin, Auston Matthews
LTIR: Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin, Petr Mrazek
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
#20 Nick Paul – #21 Brayden Point – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #79 Ross Colton
#17 Alex Killorn – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #38 Brandon Hagel
#14 Patrick Maroon – #41 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare – #10 Corey Perry
#77 Victor Hedman – #44 Jan Rutta
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #81 Erik Cernak
#98 Mikail Sergachev – #24 Zach Bogosian
Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliot