The loss to Arizona on Monday was an episode of groundhog day for all of us who watched the Maple Leafs play down to cellar-dwelling opposition last season, but it’s also true that they frequently rose to the occasion last year when challenged by a top team.

Tonight’s opponent, the Dallas Stars (7:00 p.m. EST puck drop, Sportsnet One), may not technically fit the definition of a “top team” given they were a 98-point wildcard club in 2021-22 — and the only franchise to make the playoffs with a negative goal differential — but they are 3-0 under new coach Pete DeBoer this season (13 goals for, three against). Goaltender Jake Oettinger — not starting tonight — currently sports a sparkling .966 save percentage (84 saves on 87 shots) through three starts.

The Stars’ underlying numbers are much less impressive than their record with a 43.6% share of the shot attempts, 45% share of the shots, and 49.5% share of the expected goals at five-on-five. It’s worth noting that they have carried multi-goal leads in each of their three games, establishing an early lead just two and four minutes into their two games versus the Predators and never relinquishing it.  However, if we look at the score-tied game state — keep in mind it’s only a 27-minute sample total for Dallas through three games — they’re down at 41.7% of the shot attempts, 40% of the shots on goal, and 38.5% of the expected goals.

That said, with a top line of Jason Robertson – Roope Hintz – Joe Pavelski as well as Mason Marchment and Tyler Seguin off to hot starts inside the Dallas top six, in addition to an offensive driver off the backend in Miro Heiskanen, this Stars team can effectively rope-a-dope a superior possession team through clogging it up defensively, reliable goaltending, and an opportunistic offense.

The big lineup news for the Leafs is Nick Robertson’s season debut, which comes probably a game too late after Denis Malgin remained quiet in the loss to the Coyotes.

The emphasis Sheldon Keefe placed after the Arizona loss on getting pucks to the net more quickly before the defense can establish a five-man structure inside the zone should be something the typically shot-happy Robertson can help with. The second part of that equation involves more penetration of the interior of the slot and more traffic at the front of the net.

On the backend, we have two new pairings on tap due to the injury to Jake Muzzin, whose timeline for a return is unclear at this stage.  Woodbridge native Victor Mete will make his regular-season Leafs debut in front of friends and family on a pairing with Mark Giordano. The added pace on the blue line is a welcomed attribute of Mete’s, but he needs to show he can limit mistakes defensively and handle defending the cycle and net-front area against a Dallas forward group that features plenty of bigger bodies in Roope Hintz, Jamie Benn, Denis Gurianov, Radek Faksa, Mason Marchment, Jason Robertson, and co. Aiding Mete’s cause: A partnership with the steady veteran presence of Giordano has been a beneficial situation for just about anyone he’s paired with as a Leaf.

Mete pairing with Giordano shifts Rasmus Sandin onto his strong (left) side opposite Justin Holl, which gives Sandin the opportunity and minutes to find more traction to start the season coming off of an abbreviated camp. With Muzzin out and Giordano likely to take on increased penalty-killing minutes in his absence, Sandin is also expected to play the point on the second power-play unit.

While the second power-play unit is something of an afterthought on a team with a loaded first unit, Giordano has played 2:14 per game on the man advantage so far and has been a positive presence there with his ability to hold the line and snap the puck around efficiently. The coaching staff will want to continue mixing Giordano in on the power play — maybe even within the game tonight, depending on how it goes, but they will certainly go back to it plenty this season — so it’s an opportunity for Sandin to grow his confidence through feeling the puck more while keeping himself on the radar as an option capable of taking on more minutes on the man advantage.

In net, Ilya Samsonov will make his third start of the season as he looks to build on two solid outings in which he’s allowed two goals in each and stopped 92.6% of the shots faced. Four goals against on 5.08 expected goals against gives him a 1.08 goals saves above expected through two starts.

Game Day Quotes

Tyler Seguin on the challenge he is expecting from the Leafs coming off of the loss to Arizona:

They’re a team that is looking to bounce back. They’re a team that has had their elite players kind of called out — I am not really sure if it was called out or taken back; I don’t really know. You expect them to be ready, and they’re going to come, especially early. We have to be prepared.

Stars head coach Pete DeBoer on Mason Marchment’s play since joining the Stars:

What a story. I don’t think anyone has had a tougher three or four months than Mason. I can’t tell you how impressed I have been with how he has handled it, how he has come into camp, how he has integrated into our camp, and how well he is playing. He has been one of our best players, if not our best forward, right from the drop of the puck in training camp. He has been a huge addition for us.

Mason Marchment on his memories of playing in Toronto:

A lot of good times and a lot of bad times. Calder Cup champion. A lot of fun experiences with a lot of guys I have friendships with for life now. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I am very appreciative of what they put into me. Tonight, we’ll try to use it against them.

Jason Robertson on what makes Marchment a unique and impactful player:

It’s his tenacity. You don’t really see a lot of players who have that grittiness and that skill. It is something where only a handful in the NHL can play with a lot of skill and play tough as an in-your-face, ratty type of player. Every team needs that. It is a big quality he adds to our team.

Keefe on former Marlie/Leaf Mason Marchment’s recent success in the league:

I am incredibly proud of him and happy for him. He is a guy who has had a long road. He put in a lot of work to get to this point. There are probably not a lot of people in hockey who had a lot of belief in his ability to get there. It started out with coming out of junior hockey, and you’re not quite sure what he is going to be.

Kyle and our scouting staff really believed in him and gave him an opportunity to grow. It was a longer road than he probably would’ve even liked to solidify himself in the AHL.

When we made the trade and he went to Florida, even then, it was a bit of a rocky road for him to find his way. Florida initially didn’t bring him as a part of the bubble experience, which was a setback for him. He just kept working his way through that.

Once he got his opportunity, it seems like he hasn’t looked back. I am incredibly proud of him. He came to see me last time he was in here last year when the Panthers came in. It was nice to see him. It was a real hard moment for him and his family with the passing of his father, but it seems as though that has inspired him to great things and to get off to a great start in Dallas.

Really great to see how it has worked out for him.

Sheldon Keefe on how his team can play more on the inside in the offensive zone:

It is recognizing the opportunities and the windows that are there to do so. When you look at the game-winning goal against Ottawa, we had given up the lead, and you could just ride it out. That is a game where we were struggling to get inside, but there was a window of opportunity. If you pause that picture right when Justin Holl puts the puck in the net, we are right there with our sticks on the inside.

That is a pretty good example. It is a team that is making it hard on you to get inside, but within the game, there are opportunities. You have to recognize those and get there. Sometimes, you don’t want to go inside because they have you out-numbered, it is not the right time, and you are probably going to give the puck away. But there were a lot of opportunities in the Arizona game where we didn’t recognize, didn’t execute, and didn’t attack.

You want to find that balance. More often than not, you just want to default to the attack mode. If we happen to give up some pucks in the process, we will work to get those back. It is more of a recognition thing. That is a symptom of it being early in the season and also of playing a game in which you have the puck on your stick 80% of the time.

Keefe on the challenge presented by the Stars:

They seem to be firing on all cylinders right now. Their special teams have been good. The goaltending has been good. They haven’t given up much defensively. They are a deep team with four lines and three D pairs.

It is just a team that is coming in and feeling really good about what they are doing. They are perfect through three games and have outscored their opponents 13-3. It is a team we need to be prepared for.

Keefe on the differences in the Stars under new coach Pete DeBoer:

A lot more aggressive on offense for sure. That is noticeable. Still, though, they have great attention to detail defensively and are not giving up a lot. They seem to have another step or two in terms of their pace of play, but it is early in the season. I don’t know if we can draw too many conclusions from all of that, but that is what we see: they look good on offense, on defense, and on special teams.

Sheldon Keefe on his strong statements after the losses to Montreal and Arizona, and if it is an intention of his to be sterner after poor performances this season:

We had talked before the season about the importance of being really consistent and having our game — as often as we can — look like ourselves. From game one, that wasn’t the case. For a team that has been together as long as our team has, there is an expectation that we would start at a really high level, and we didn’t. That was disappointing.

The Washington and Ottawa games, I think, are good games for us that we feel good about. The Arizona game is a funny game, but we had been talking about not leaving those points on the table. We happened to get two opponents on the schedule that were the types of teams we struggled against last season. The expectation was to improve there, and we didn’t.

It is more of a symptom of that than anything. I don’t know if I had a game plan for how I was going to approach the early going other than to say there is a high expectation our group would continue to grow, particularly in those types of games. We haven’t been.

Keefe on the reaction to his comments about the elite players’ performance versus Arizona and the decision to clarify his remarks on Wednesday:

It is probably more of a reflection of coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs and dealing with [the media] than anything — just to make sure that the way I am communicating is more clear. The reaction to the comments was not what I was trying to communicate. It is more so about managing the media than the players.

Nick Robertson on the scouting report on his brother, Jason:

His line is very deadly. They’re a very offensively-productive line and one of the best in the NHL. He is a big body with great skill and IQ. He is a player to watch out there.

Nick Robertson on his memory of playing against Jason last season:

Just a lot of focusing on him and less on what I had to do. When you are playing against your brother for the first time, it is kind of a mental thing. Now, more is at stake and it is more of an opportunity this year than last year. I am trying to focus on the game. We’re playing the Dallas Stars, and we need to have a good game tonight.

TJ Brodie on the challenge presented by the 3-0-0 Stars:

They bring an element of speed to the game and skill. They can make the plays when they are there. Defensively, they swarm the puck and like to clog it up. It’s about being smart — knowing when the plays are there to be made and when you should live to fight another day by getting it in deep.

Michael Bunting on the top line’s relatively slow start to the season:

We are not off to the start that we all wanted. I think we have to get back to the game that we had success with last year. We have to play more simple, create space for both of them, create space to attack one-on-one, and get Matty those shots. He only has the one goal, and that is not going to last very long. It is just a matter of time until he explodes.

We want to play a big role, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform. I know I do that myself. I am looking forward to getting out there tonight and having a good game.

Pete DeBeoer on the excitement about playing in Toronto for him and his seven Ontario-born players:

It is always a special day going back to Toronto for Ontario players and kids that are born there. Everyone grew up with the Maple Leafs. That is the Taj Mahal for hockey for us in Ontario. It is always special. Guys get excited to go there.

For me, it is always special going home. My parents still live in Ontario. I have my wife’s family all there. That is where I spend my summers. I was a Maple Leaf draft pick 150 years ago. It has always held a special place for me.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Note: It’s possible we could see more of a shakeup in the forward lines than what is projected below as the Maple Leafs held an optional game-day skate this morning.

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kampf – #96 Nicolas Aubé-Kubel

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#38 Rasmus Sandin  – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #98 Victor Mete

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#50 Erik Källgren

Injured: Jake Muzzin, Matt Murray, Timothy Liljegren, Jordie Benn
Extras: Denis Malgin, Wayne Simmonds

Dallas Stars Projected Lines

#21 Jason Robertson – #24 Roope Hintz – #16 Joe Pavelski
#27 Mason Marchment – #91 Tyler Seguin – #10 Ty Dellandrea
#14 Jamie Benn – #53 Wyatt Johnston – #34 Denis Gurianov
#12 Radek Faksa – #11 Luke Glendening – #25 Joel Kiviranta

#4 Miro Heiskanen – #6 Colin Miller
#20 Ryan Suter – #2 Jani Hakanpää
#23 Esa Lindell – #5 Nils Lundkvist

Starter: #41 Scott Wedgewood
#29 Jake Oettinger

Extras: Joel Hanley, Jacob Peterson