After a frustrating special-teams-driven loss in Game 2, the Maple Leafs will make a number of lineup adjustments as they attempt to take back home-ice advantage in Game 3 tonight in Tampa Bay (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).

Although there wasn’t much to draw from Game 1’s even-strength lineups, Jon Cooper made an effective adjustment to his defense pairs in Game 2. Jan Rutta became a healthy scratch and Zach Bogosian drew in next to Mikail Sergachev, which meant that Erik Cernak, one of the Lightning’s top shutdown defensemen alongside Ryan McDonagh, went back to his familiar spot alongside Victor Hedman. That pair was a consistent force opposite the Bunting-Matthews-Marner line; it kept the Leafs‘ top line scoreless in around eight minutes head to head at 5v5 while carrying the edge in shot attempts, shots, and expected Goals (the latter was nearly 70% in favour of the Lightning in those minutes).

Sheldon Keefe will make his own lineup adjustments coming off of his team’s Game 2 loss as he looks to help shape a big response from his group in Game 3.

Having spent the first two games of the series in the press box, Jason Spezza will make his anticipated return to the lineup for Game 3. Putting aside that there have been some clear issues with discipline for Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds on the fourth line, there are a number of ways a raring-to-go Spezza could help the Leafs tonight.

Firstly, his ability to win faceoffs (52.5% in 21-22) will be an asset now that the Leafs are on the road without last change and will have less control over matchups.

Secondly, Spezza will be able to go back to familiar spot on the second power-play unit. While the coaching staff had been using two defensemen on the unit in its limited ice time, Spezza gives them a dangerous shooter, passer, and capable zone-entry presence. After winning the special teams battle with a shorthanded goal and a power-play goal in the first game, the Leafs followed it up with no goals on three opportunities on the power-play and three goals against on the penalty kill in Game 2. Any additional edge in the special teams battle could make a difference.

Thirdly, moving Pierre Engvall further down the pecking order next to Spezza and Colin Blackwell gives the Leafs a much more skilled fourth line that looks more capable of winning a bottom-six matchup, which was becoming a concern for the Leafs after the Tampa fourth line made a positive impact on Game 2 by scoring a goal, drawing a few penalties, and winning its minutes to the tune of ~68% control of the expected goals.

The tradeoff is that Engvall’s presence on the third line was a big part of making the line go.  Although it was in large part a byproduct of protecting a healthy lead in Game 1, Engvall also leads Toronto forwards in five-on-five ice time through two playoff games.  Keefe has used many different line combinations depending on the situation in-game, so Engvall will likely move around, especially if the Leafs are leading as the game wears on — or if the Leafs aren’t getting the start they wanted out of their bottom two lines.

Another change for the Maple Leafs is one oriented around experience and penalty kill considerations as this series moves onto the road. Justin Holl will sub in for Timothy Liljegren on the Leafs’ third pair alongside Mark Giordano after Liljegren posted the worst shot share of any defenseman on the team through two games at even-strength (and was outbattled at the front of the net on the 4-1 goal in Game 2, which stood up as the game-winner).

The Lightning scored three goals on the man-advantage on Wednesday, and Holl has been a staple on a successful Leafs PK this season. He has spent the second-most minutes shorthanded among all Leafs defensemen this season and is third in shorthanded TOI/game behind T.J Brodie and Jake Muzzin.

The Leafs’ coaching staff would’ve been weighing up whether it was Ilya Lyubushkin — who also has not killed penalties — coming out instead; it’s unlikely they would have been comfortable moving Liljegren up the lineup onto a pairing with Morgan Rielly at this stage. The idea of Muzzin and Holl together also appears to be a no-go after the results were consistently subpar this season, so this is where the Leafs coaching staff landed in terms of a decision, and it’s undoubtedly one that will receive a lot of scrutiny depending on how this game plays out.

Lastly, William Nylander and John Tavares will re-unite after the pair were split up down the stretch of the regular season due to the consistent theme that any offense they generated at 5v5 seemed to be given back at the other end. It’s notable just how little Nylander and Tavares have played at 5v5 through two games, and as the Leafs look to find more 5v5 offense outside of the top line, these two will need to be a major part of the solution. Keefe, for his part, appears to be attempting to find ways to get them on the ice more with this change. Now it’s up to the $18 million duo to deliver.

Series Stats via NaturalStatTrick

  • The Leafs are winning the xGoals battle by a narrow 3.3 to 3.19 margin at even-strength
  • John Tavares has won 12-of-16 faceoffs so far this series (75%) but has just one secondary power-play assist through two games
  • Brandon Hagel leads both teams in individual xGoals (.77) at even-strength
  • Brayden Point leads both teams by a wide margin in individual xGoals at 5-on-4 with .88 xG in just 13:45 TOI
  • David Kampf and T.J Brodie are the only two players on either team above a 70% on-ice xGoals share.
  • The Maple Leafs are tied with the Hurricanes for the highest faceoff percentage in the playoffs (56%)
  • The Toronto-Tampa series has had the highest rate of penalties called of any first-round series
  • The Lightning have spent over four-and-a-half more minutes on the powerplay than any other team in the playoffs, not including the Leafs

Game Day Quotes

Keefe on Justin Holl replacing Timothy Liljegren:

In the first couple of games, there have been times where [Liljegren’s] inexperience has showed up a little bit. It’s been a lot for him to take on here. Now we’re on the road and we don’t control the matchups in the same way.

Of course, Holl has been a really big part of our PK all season. All that pointed towards us making a change.

Keefe on why now is the time for Jason Spezza to return:

I think we’re just at a point in the series where we need to get Spezza involved. As I forecasted the series and how things might go, usually you get past the first couple of games and the physicality sort of settles in because there’s more at stake and the teams know what to expect from one another.

It’s a combination of us wanting to get Spezza in but also wanting to get another look on the road. With [Engvall] on that line, it will help us have more ability to get that line out there.

Sheldon Keefe on why he’s reuniting John Tavares and William Nylander:

It’s just way the way our lines shake out here. We’ve moved some things coming on the road. It’s a look that we wanted to get. There’s been a lot of attention paid to the fact that they haven’t been on a line. They’ve played together a fair bit in each game the last couple of months, so it’s not entirely new. Things will likely still move around.

Keefe on why things have been tough thus far offensively for Nylander and Tavares:

Like you said, it has been hard. Not just because it’s been tight-checking, but also because the five-on-five play has [had very little rhythm]. So that’s impacted both [Tavares] and Nylander, to be honest. That’s part of why we’re putting them together. It’s a little easier to get them on the ice more consistently.

We’ll see how the game goes. We’re thinking that both teams are going to be adjusting in the series now in terms of penalties and stuff like that. Hopefully, that creates more five-on-five rhythm, but if there are going to be disruptions, at least it’s easier to get them out there when they’re together.

Keefe on Tavares’ struggles in particular:

In terms of John’s game, I thought he had a couple of our best looks on the power play early in the game the other night. I expect he’ll continue to get those looks. He has an ability to score for us there.

We’re happy he’s put himself in those spots. Five-on-five, everybody’s always trying to produce a little more, but it’s been tight-checking and both teams have experienced that in the first two games.

Jason Spezza on his mindest while watching the first two games of the series from the press box:

There are adjustments made every game. I think I’ve got a lot of experience this time of year. It’s the best time of year to play hockey, so I can bring some enthusiasm to the game and some poise. Also, I’ll hopefully help the power play and get the line in good order.

I don’t think words can describe how hard it is to watch a game when you’re a player. It’s difficult, but it’s part of the process of being on a team. We have a great team here, and we’re going to need to use our depth throughout the playoffs. But, as players, it’s one of the hardest things to do.

Spezza on the series going forward:

I think they made some adjustments. We have to make adjustments, and that’s the nature of the playoffs. I think [we’re] two great hockey teams. That’s what stands out to me. Two very-evenly matched teams. We both have certain strengths in different areas, but [we’re] very evenly matched. It’s going to be a great series.

Spezza on his linemates Pierre Engvall and Colin Blackwell:

We’ve seen the growth in [Engvall’s] game. Playing with him is kind of second nature to me now at this point. [Blackwell] is a guy that brings a lot of speed up the middle. He’s added some energy to our group. I’ve played with him through the end of the season.

I think Sheldon did a good job of playing all different combos towards the end of the year. You never know this time of year. Things are a little bit unpredictable.

Spezza on where Engvall has improved his game:

Everywhere. I think he’s more aware of how strong he is and how strong he can be on pucks. He’s learned to use his speed. I think he’s learned to change his speed, which has really helped him a lot. Maybe early on he was one speed – very fast everywhere — and now he’s learning to take teams [by suprise] by changing speeds.

Also, just as you get older and more comfortable, he’s not battling for a position in the lineup now. I think you see a growth in confidence in his game, too. Sheldon is hard on him at times, and he’s learned to respond to that, too. He’s just trying to get the most out of him, and I think he’s realized that. He’s been a phenomenal player for us.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#56 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares  – #25 Ondrej Kase
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #64 David Kampf – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#47 Pierre Engvall – #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: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren

Healthy Scratches: Wayne Simmonds, Timothy Liljegren, Nick Abruzzese, Kyle Clifford
Injured: Rasmus Sandin, Petr Mrazek

Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines

#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#38 Bradon Hagel – #21 Brayden Point – #71 Anthony Cirelli
#17 Alex Killorn – #79 Ross Colton – #20 Nick Paul
#14 Patrick Maroon – #41 Pierre-Edouard Bellmare – #10 Corey Perry

#77 Victor Hedman – #81 Erik Cernak
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #24 Zach Bogosian
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #52 Cal Foote

Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliot

Healthy Scratches: Riley Nash, Jan Rutta
Injured: None