After a thrilling overtime win over the Dallas Stars earned on the back of two Nick Robertson goals including the game-winner, the Maple Leafs roll into Winnipeg for a clash with the Jets on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
An electric season debut from Nick Robertson and a notch in the win column allowed everyone to exhale after a tense few days in the Toronto market. Having found a way to win three games all by 3-2 scorelines, the Leafs are hoping some team bonding on the road can help them settle into their season and find their rhythm offensively, particularly for the top line that’s remained quiet by its standards through the opening five games.
The road trip begins in Winnipeg against a Jets team that has alternated wins and losses through four games. After winning their home opener, they had a short three-game road trip that started with a loss in Dallas, an overtime win in Colorado, and a loss in Vegas on Thursday. The Jets have already been dealt a major blow to their forward core as Nikolaj Ehlers was placed on IR after missing the previous two games. As a result, Mason Appleton has been promoted to the top line alongside Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor.
The X-factor is the same as it has been for the last several years of largely mediocre hockey in Winnipeg: Connor Hellebuyck. Everyone by now is well acquainted with the star netminder, and the first period against the Golden Knights proved how vulnerable the Jets can be without their stud between the pipes.
On the Leafs‘ side, while they may not have the elite goalie option, Ilya Samsonov has provided has earned the trust of his team quickly with steady play in the three games he’s started (all 3-2 wins). He hasn’t been otherworldly — of the six goals he’s allowed, a few of them he would want back — but he’s been good enough for a team that should be able to score enough and suppress shots well enough to win with good-enough goaltending (the Leafs are allowing just a shade over 25 shots per game on average so far).
Toronto is making some changes to the lineup in front of Samsonov. Sheldon Keefe is giving the bottom six a retool: Zach Aston-Reese is joining Alex Kerfoot and Calle Järnkrok, while Pierre Engvall and Nicolas Aube-Kubel (both pointless through five, with their minutes trending way down in recent games) are taking a seat for veteran grinders Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds.
This is probably just as much of a matchup-based decision as it is performance-based or message-sending (in Engvall’s case), as the history between these teams dating back to the Canadian division, particularly in this building, is no doubt a factor at play here. In the last visit to the Canada Life Centre, the aftermath of the carnage included a suspension for Jason Spezza, a Rasmus Sandin injury, and Mark Scheifele’s infamous quote: “Is there anything better than beating the Leafs?”
In Engvall’s case, he’s paid $2.25 million because he’s supposed to be consistent enough in what he brings night in and night out to not end up as a healthy scratch at any point. That said, he did miss training camp, and there is a history of Sheldon Keefe using the carrot-and-stick approach with the big Swede. He’s contributed some on the penalty kill, but the lackadaisical five-on-five play has earned him a look from up top tonight.
Strap yourself in for an HNIC rivalry game in Winnipeg with a charged split-crowd atmosphere and the heavies in on the Leafs‘ fourth line.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the decision to recall Kyle Clifford and insert him on the fourth line:
It gives us a different look on the fourth line. It gives us a chance to have Cliff and Simmer involved in our group. It is good timing for it.
Both guys bring us lots of energy both on the bench and on the ice. Coming into this road trip, we could use that.
Keefe on the history of heated rivalry games against the Jets:
It seems like there is maybe some stuff left over from the Canadian division where we played them 10 times or something like that. It is also just two competitive, highly-skilled teams that have had a lot of back-and-forth type of games against each other.
There is a new coaching staff in Winnipeg, but I think a lot of those elements would remain. From our side of it, I think it is just to give us a different look. We have the ability with our depth to change the look of our team — in particular, the depth of our team.
Heading into the season and through camp, this is something I thought we would do at different times when we feel we could use a bit of a boost and some more energy with a little more veteran presence on our team.
Keefe on the team’s fourth-line results so far:
The results haven’t been what I had hoped they would be. However, the deck has been stacked very heavily against them — and that is by design. To expect them to have good results or great results given how heavily I have buried them in the defensive zone and the types of matchups they’ve had… I mean, they have been starting in the defensive zone more than anyone in the league and playing against some of the tougher competition than anyone in the league — certainly for anybody lower in the lineup.
It has been a challenge for them that way. I just think, as I look at it individually, each player has not given us reason to not change things if we felt necessary. There is nobody I have said, “Absolutely they need to be in the lineup because they are playing so well.” That allows us an opportunity to move some things around.
I still believe in the different elements that we have there. We’ll just try to find the right mix.
Keefe on Engvall’s start to the season:
I think he has looked tentative and hesitant to skate. That is his number one asset — to move his feet with and without the puck to get involved. He hasn’t done that here quite yet. It is a bit of a reset for him here tonight.
I spoke to him yesterday about clearing his head. He is an important player for us. I know he has more ability to impact our lineup positively. He had a good season last year. We are looking for him to build on that. It hasn’t gone the way he or I would’ve liked to start the season.
He is an important guy. We need to get him going.
Keefe on balancing empowering a second unit on the power play that scored twice vs. Dallas and wanting to get the top unit rolling:
It is something the coach has to manage for sure. We had a lot of power plays the other day. It is a balance for me to give the second unit a reward for the work that they have done and get them out there, but also, you want the first group to work through what they are going through and find their rhythm.
After the Kerfoot goal the other night, we started the second group and tried to change the rhythm that way by giving the second group the first minute or so. It didn’t go very well for them. We want back to the traditional look from there, with the other group starting first, as we normally do.
It is one of those things. You want to give the other guys a little bit more. It doesn’t go well for them, and now you have thrown them off. There is a real balance there. The fact that those guys picked up the slack for us on the second unit made a big difference in the game for us clearly.
Auston Matthews on the presence of Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds in the lineup:
Ultimate teammates and ultimate warriors. Over their careers, they have really grinded their way into having the careers that they’ve had. They are two guys that play physical, are always going to have your back out there, and bring a lot of energy and intensity to our team. I definitely don’t think it is a negative thing to have guys like that in the lineup.
Matthews on the team’s performance through five games:
We are 3-2, and I don’t think we have quite played as well as we would like to or scratched the surface of the ceiling of what we believe there is for our team.
This is a really good and important road trip or us to get going here, especially early in the season, and for us to come together, create chemistry on and off the ice, and have fun playing hockey.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#43 Kyle Clifford – #64 David Kampf – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#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: Pierre Engvall, Denis Malgin, Nicolas Aubé-Kubel
Winnipeg Jets Projected Lines
#81 Kyle Connor – #55 Mark Scheifele – #22 Mason Appleton
#91 Cole Perfetti – #80 Pierre-Luc Dubois – #26 Blake Wheeler
#36 Morgan Barron – #17 Adam Lowry – #Saku Maenalanen
#71 Axel Jonsson-Fjallby – #19 David Gustafsson – #89 Sam Gagner
#44 Josh Morrissey – #4 Neal Pionk
#64 Logan Stanley – #2 Dylan DeMelo
#5 Brenden Dillon – #88 Nate Schmidt
Starter: #37 Connor Hellebuyck
#33 David Rittich
Injured/Out: Nikolaj Ehlers