With a much better effort than in Tampa Bay, the Maple Leafs grabbed a point but fell 3-2 in overtime against the Florida Panthers last night. Now in the second half of a back-to-back, they continue their quest to clinch home-ice advantage in the first round when they face the Capitals tonight in Washington (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).
Coming off of a brutal 8-1 loss on Thursday night, the Leafs accomplished the goal of mustering a “response” effort against the Panthers on Saturday. They went toe-to-toe with the red-hot President’s Trophy favourites, and more concerning than the lost point in overtime is the injury to Michael Bunting with the start of the playoffs just eight or nine days away.
Still, the Leafs are looking to avoid turning a blip into a losing streak in the final week of the season tonight when they take on the Capitals. Washington comes into this game on a four-game point streak and winners of three of those four games since falling 7-3 to the Leafs on April 14.
The Capitals now sit at 99 points on the season, just two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the third seed in the Metropolitan Division. They will be eager to pass the Penguins in the last week knowing a first-round matchup against the Rangers is a much more appealing proposition than a round-one date against the Panthers.
However, the first obstacle in their way is a Leafs team that they’ve struggled against this season. During the first meeting on February 28, Michael Bunting opened the scoring and the Capitals fell behind 3-1 after the first period. Washington managed to climb their way back into the game after swapping out Ilya Samsonov for Vitek Vanecek in goal, but Rasmus Sandin pushed the Leafs over the top in the dying minutes of the third.
In the more recent matchup just over a week ago, the Capitals also fell behind early thanks to an early Bunting tally. John Carlson scored halfway through the second to cut the lead to 2-1, but the Leafs answered just 13 seconds later to reclaim a multi-goal lead and then scored 18 seconds after that to push the game out of reach. The final score was lopsided (7-3), with Samsonov once again chased from the game.
The Leafs would certainly like to build off that April 14 performance tonight, but they will need someone other than Bunting to score their first goal of the game this time around. Thankfully, last night, Auston Matthews returned from injury and made his presence felt with a team-high seven shots on goal as well as seven high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five. Unfortunately, he failed to find the back of the net, which means the hunt for 60 goals is coming down to the wire.
Due to Bunting’s injury, the lineup will receive another shakeup, but the exact combinations will remain unknown until line rushes in warmups. We know one of Jason Spezza or Nick Abruzzese will have to draw back in, presumably on the fourth line. After Bunting went down, William Nylander was bumped up to the top line with good results, so it stands to reason that Keefe could try that “power line” for a full 60 minutes tonight.
In the second half of a back-to-back, Erik Källgren will take the start in net for the Leafs. Ideally, the team will be motivated to play a better game in front of him after he was left in to get shelled on Thursday in Tampa. Källgren is an injury away from taking the starter’s reins in the playoffs, so it would be beneficial to get him feeling good about his game in the final week.
The Capitals will give the nod to Vanacek, who has won his last three starts, including a 19-save shutout against the Coyotes on Friday night. Vanecek enters the game with a record of 20-11-5, a save percentage of .910, and a goals-against-average of 2.6.
First Round Opponent Probabilities
Game Day Quotes
Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette on mustering a better effort than their last loss against the Leafs:
We don’t like the way the last game went. It’s the only one on the road trip that stunk. We’ve got to be better than that. The guys know that, too.
It’s a big game for a lot of different reasons. That factors into it a little bit as well.
Laviolette on what makes Auston Matthews so dangerous as a goal scorer:
He finds space. It’s his release; he’s got an unbelievable release. He finds little areas and great scoring areas. He’s not off on the perimeter somewhere. He finds them in the slot; he finds them in the house.
Real smart player, but his shot and his release is something.
Nick Jensen on the matchup against the Leafs:
The last time we played these guys, they dominated us in our d-zone. I remember playing a lot of defense, and it took a lot of energy out of my game. We need to find ways to stop them, get the puck stopped, outnumber them, and then get moving up the ice as a group. I think that’s going to be one of the biggest things.
They’ve got a lot of fast guys on their team, so it’s about managing how and where they get their speed and making sure they don’t get behind us or beat us to our net.
Evgeny Kuznetsov on manufacturing a better effort than in the last game against the Leafs:
The last game didn’t go well, so you know we have to regroup. Sometimes you’re going to give up games like that, and sometimes you generate a lot but can’t score. It’s not something that I really focus on. It’s just about how we respond and how we are going to play [tonight].
Sheldon Keefe on William Nylander’s play in Michael Bunting’s place on the Matthews line last night:
I thought he was good. Those guys haven’t played together a lot other than the odd shift here and there. It is probably the most they have played together consistently. We got a look at that.
I thought those guys were good. They had the puck a lot. They played on their half of the ice a lot.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#88 William Nylander – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#47 Pierre Engvall – #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: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren
Extras: Nick Abruzzese, Carl Dahlstrom
Injured: Jake Muzzin, Michael Bunting
LTIR: Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin, Petr Mrazek
Washington Capitals Projected Lines
#8 Alex Ovechkin – #92 Evgeny Kuznetsov – #43 Tom Wilson
#90 Marcus Johansson – #19 Nick Backstrom – #73 Conor Sheary
#39 Anthony Mantha – #20 Lars Eller – #77 T.J Oshie
#22 Johan Larsson – #26 Nic Dowd – #21 Garnet Hathaway
#42 Martin Fehervary – #74 John Carlson
#9 Dmitry Orlov – #3 Nick Jensen
#57 Trevor Van Riemsdyk – #2 Justin Schultz
Starter: #41 Vitek Vanecek
#30 Ilya Samsonov
Injured: Carl Haglin, Joe Snively