With Ilya Samsonov out for at least a week with a knee injury, Erik Källgren will remain in the net as the Maple Leafs look to extend their three-game winning streak against the NHL’s top team by points percentage in the Vegas Golden Knights (7 p.m. EST, TSN4).
This three-games-in-four-nights stretch is a unique set of consecutive games in which the Leafs are playing deep, complete, structured, and red-hot teams that are playing as close to a playoff brand of hockey as you’re going to find at this time in the schedule.
So far, the Leafs are passing the test with flying colours particularly from a defensive standpoint, limiting the Bruins and Hurricanes to just two power-play goals and zero 5v5 goals over the weekend and effectively protecting their third-string goaltender in Källgren. Given the wonky state of the team’s overall 5v5 game on their 1-2-2 road trip against much weaker competition, it was an impressive snap to form by Sheldon Keefe’s group over the weekend.
The stiff test will continue tonight against Vegas, and with Samsonov week-to-week due to a knee injury, Källgren will need to continue to carry the load for the team until at least the weekend while Matt Murray closes in on a return.
A team also not unfamiliar with goaltending injuries and succeeding in spite of them, the Golden Knights enter the game as the hottest team in the NHL (seven straight wins). A healthy player roster and the structure implemented by new head coach Bruce Cassidy have Vegas right back in the thick of the Cup contention conversation after their year from hell and missed playoff qualification in 2021-22. They’re currently a top-10 offense, allow the fewest goals against per game, and control the expected goals at an elite level at 5v5. Their one drawback has been their mediocre special teams, but even those are improving as of late, including a power play that is four for its last 10.
Cassidy has not altered his lineup in any way since the Golden Knights thoroughly outplayed the Leafs in all areas of the game down in Vegas, a loss that seemed to set the tone for the remainder of the shaky five-game road trip after the Leafs started off with a win in Winnipeg.
It’s a great opportunity for revenge while showing just how far the team has come over its last three victories. The Leafs snapped the Bruins’ seven-game winning streak on Saturday night on home ice, and they could end the NHL’s longest active winning streak in front of their home fans again tonight.
The line combinations that staged the Leafs’ comeback 3-1 win in Carolina will not remain completely intact to start the game, as the center-right wing combos in the top six will revert to their usual iteration: Matthews-Marner / Tavares-Nylander / Engvall-Jarnkrok / Kampf-Malgin. However, Sheldon Keefe will keep the center-left wing combos from the end of the game together by keeping Nick Roberson with Tavares, Alex Kerfoot with Matthews, and Michael Bunting with Engvall.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the line combinations for tonight:
A lot of it, frankly, is how I feel it’s best set up for us to compete in the game tonight against this opponent. We played them not long ago and had a sense of what didn’t work in that game. We wanted to try some different things here being on home ice and controlling the last change.
I liked this setup here. The way it works is a bit of a hybrid of what we did the other night, but it is more of a reflection of how I want the lines set up for today’s game against this team.
Keefe on the challenge against the Golden Knights and their 10-2-0 start:
The first thing is that they’re healthy. I don’t think anyone has ever felt that you are going to be in for an easy night when playing against Vegas. Since they have come into the league, they have been an elite team. Last season, it got away on them a little bit, but it has never changed anyone’s impression of their team.
Their defense is as deep and as good as any team in the league. The group has responded to Bruce coming in and the system he has put in. They have always been a team that is extremely dangerous in transition on the rush, and that has been the case, especially with all of their guns in their lineup there.
All of that stuff coming together for them has really put them back where everybody would say they belong. That is where they have essentially been. You are never going to have an easy game against them.
Keefe on what he is looking for from Nick Robertson as he moves him in and out of the lineup:
We’ve had a lot of players moving in and out of the lineup. I have been asked the question, “What are you looking for from different players there?” I am looking for a guy to really step up and grab a hold of it.
Denis Malgin’s game the other night is a terrific example of a player who goes out and has one of those nights where if I came in today and told you Denis Malgin is going to be out, I would be stupid. It would be obvious to everyone that it would be stupid.
That is what you are looking for: a player to make it obvious they belong, they’re there, and they’re making an impact. Sometimes it is offensively, sometimes it is defensively, and sometimes it is a bit of both. That is really what you are looking for with any of these guys moving in and out of the lineup, but once it happens, you start to get traction, your spot is there, and off you go.
To me, Nick hasn’t been able to do that here yet. That is part of the process. He has had great moments inside of every game he has played. You are just looking for it to really come together for him the way it did in the preseason. It hasn’t been as easy for him.
He is playing against a team tonight that he has played against. It is the second time around for him, so we will see how he grows inside of that. I still like a lot of his jump, skill, and ability to shoot the puck in the net for us. That is why we wanted to keep him in tonight.
Keefe on whether he is surprised by Denis Malgin gaining traction on a bottom-six line:
Surprise isn’t really the right word, but we approached it coming in that he was a guy competing with Robertson, frankly, for a spot in that top six. That didn’t work out quite the way we wanted it to, so we gave this a shot.
I talked to Denis about this being an opportunity. This is what is there. Take advantage of it. You don’t necessarily need to change your game or anything like that, but you have to find a role on this team. He was all about it. He really just wanted to play on our team, be in the lineup, and have a chance to play.
In terms of what has worked for him, from what I have seen, he has two guys who are extremely responsible in Kampf and Aston-Reese. I don’t want to speak for him, but in my mind, I look at him as a guy who has taken hold of a line offensively. He has taken charge of it. He is making a difference that way.
If you look at the other night, it is a game he is playing in as a back-to-back game against one of the teams that is as hard as any team to play against in the league. We are on the road. He is our game-time decision going into the game; we weren’t sure if he was going to go in that game. To me, he dominated the game when he was out there. That is not an easy thing to do.
When you are playing with that confidence and skill that he has, he doesn’t get enough credit for how competitive he is on the puck as well. He is a strong guy for his size. That is as tough of a game as you are going to find on the schedule for the regular season, and for him to have that kind of performance, we are certainly taking notice of it.
No matter what line he is on, if he is playing like that, he is going to have success.
Keefe on why Michael Bunting hasn’t been as effective on the Matthews line this season:
It is hard to say. We have tried to give it some time to work through that. Bunts is still competing his ass off out there. He is involved in everything. It is not that part of it. It just hasn’t come together both for him and his linemates. A little bit of a change to the chemistry here today, and a little bit of a change in responsibility.
It is sort of not unlike the way it was last year, to be honest. He didn’t start on that line. He earned his way on that line. He played lower in the lineup and found his own game. We are taking a little bit of a step back here, trying to give him the opportunity to be focused on himself and maybe a little bit of a lighter load in terms of matchups and responsibilities.
We have done this previously this season. It didn’t last long before we moved him back. I suspect it will be similar, but I think it is important for him to reset a little bit in terms of his process and what he has to think about or worry about when he is playing.
Bruce Cassidy on coaching Jack Eichel so far:
I expected him to be a really good player with the puck — an attack-oriented, puck-possession guy. Defensively, I wasn’t sure. Our centermen in our system have to cover a lot of ice and be willing to close quickly in d-zone. He has been one of the best I have ever coached because of his first and second step.
[Bergeron] is always the benchmark, so we tried to tell Jack, “This is what we are looking for.” David Krejci was always very good, too.
Jack has been excellent. He has really bought into it. He is getting pucks back, which is allowing him to play with it. Coming from underneath in our end with lots of speed has really helped his game through the neutral zone.
I didn’t have any set expectations other than, “This is what I need from you. What do you need from me?” We met during the summer and talked about that. We hoped he would stay healthy — that was the other thing. He had the bad year there where nothing seemed to go right for him health-wise. Now he is [healthy]. You are seeing the player he can be.
He is only going to get better. That line got thrown together five games ago. I think they are just really starting to feel each other out now.
Keefe on the presence Eichel provides in the Vegas lineup:
It gives them that threat. If there is one thing they have talked about and addressed themselves, it was that they didn’t have that number-one center, if you would call it that. It changes a lot of things. It is a very important thing. It brings it all together for them and rounds out their lineup.
He is a dynamic guy. He is a load to play against on both sides of the puck because of the size and speed that he has. He is a game-breaker. In addition to that, he fits right into the pace and the transition speed that this team has had and has been known for. All of those elements make a big difference for sure.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#58 Michael Bunting – #47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #62 Denis Malgin
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#55 Mark Giordano – #38 Rasmus Sandin
Starter: #50 Erik Källgren
#80 Keith Petruzzelli
Extras: Wayne Simmonds, Filip Král, Victor Mete
Injured: Kyle Clifford, Jake Muzzin, Matt Murray, Jordie Benn, Ilya Samsonov
Vegas Golden Knights Projected Lines
#20 Chandler Stephenson – #9 Jack Eichel – #61 Mark Stone
#19 Reilly Smith – #71 William Karlsson – #81 Jonathan Marchessault
#22 Mike Amadio – #21 Brett Howden – #8 Phil Kessel
#28 Will Carrier – #10 Nicolas Roy – #55 Keegan Kolesar
#23 Alec Martinez – #7 Alex Pietrangelo
#3 Brayden McNabb – #27 Shea Theodore
#14 Nicolas Hague – #2 Zach Whitecloud
Starter: #36 Logan Thompson (unconfirmed)
#33 Adin Hill
Injured: Robin Lehner, Nolan Patrick, Laurent Brossoit