The Maple Leafs and Blues will complete their season series with their second meeting in the span of a week tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).
Since the Leafs and Blues’ meeting in late December, St. Louis has lost two top-line forwards in Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko for over a month due to injury. Those key losses come at a critical juncture in their season as they look to vault themselves into a playoff position following a disappointing 2022 portion of their schedule, creating some interesting potential ramifications for the trade deadline. The Leafs, meanwhile, are about as healthy as they’ve been since mid-October as their top six defensemen sans Jake Muzzin, their two goaltenders, and all of their forwards except Nick Robertson are available for selection.
With Rasmus Sandin’s return, the Leafs‘ defense pairings are going to be back in the alignment many assumed they’d eventually be in if ever fully healthy: Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie / Mark Giordano – Justin Holl / Sandin – Timothy Liljegren. They also have a healthy fourth pair of NHL defensemen in Jordie Benn – Conor Timmins at the ready should underperformance or injury dictate a change. All in all, the balance and depth of the blue line — as well as the familiarity and chemistry between each individual pairing — appears to be in solid shape as the calendar flips to 2023.
In net, the Leafs are hoping to see Ilya Samsonov produce a bounce-back performance that puts to an end a small three-game rut from him individually despite the team winning two of those games vs. St. Louis and Philadelphia. He’s conceded 12 goals on 81 shots against for a .852 save percentage over those three starts. The Leafs struggled to close out games cleanly against the Blues and Flyers partially due to some stoppable goals on Samsonov following his forgettable performance in the loss against the Capitals.
The first meeting of the season between the Leafs and Blues a week ago was tough to judge given it was the first game coming out of the holiday break, as the 5-4 score line would indicate. Additionally, the Blues’ lineup is significantly changed with the recent injuries to key players. That said, an improved performance from Samsonov, stronger starts to periods, and less feeding of the Blues transition game are all points of emphasis entering tonight as the Leafs look for the same result but with a cleaner process than last time out against this team.
Head to Head: Leafs vs. Blues
In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Blues in four out of five offensive categories and five out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Blues GM Doug Armstrong on the loss of Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko to long-term injuries:
I have been able to touch base with a lot of our veteran guys via text. The reality is that some of the players aren’t playing to the standards they had set for themselves in the first 30+ games. The challenge is for them to get their game back on par and lead us.
We have the opportunity for younger players. Injuries are part of the profession and part of the game. Winning people and winning organizations don’t dwell on what they don’t have. They look forward to the things that they do have.
I am looking forward to seeing Parayko, Faulk, and Leddy on the backend and Saad and Schenn get their games up to the standard that they demand of themselves. Once they do that, we are all going to be able to pull behind.
It is a great opportunity for other guys that have been pining for more ice time. They are going to get it. Internally, I want to see the growth. A guy like [Logan Brown] is going to get a great opportunity now. We have to give him that opportunity, and he has to seize it and play well with it. Jake [Neighbours] is going to get an opportunity, and there are other guys that are going to get opportunities that maybe they hadn’t had when Krug, Tarasenko, or O’Reilly was playing.
For our better players, there is no safety net for them. They have to be our best players now. They have to get their game going.
Sheldon Keefe on the takeaways from the recent matchup against the Blues (5-4 OT win):
It was the first game coming out of the break, so I don’t know if you over-analyze that one too much. In that game, I thought some of their size, especially on defense… Any time pucks were on the walls, I thought they were a lot to contend with there. They are very dangerous in transition when you give them those opportunities. Those are a couple of areas of focus for us.
Keefe on his expectations for the team as it becomes nearly fully healthy with the return of Rasmus Sandin:
I expect us to keep playing the way we have and not look to other people or anything like that. The strength of our team and how we were able to have such a strong November and December — maybe not as strong, but a good December as well — is that our team game has really carried us through.
Sometimes, there is a natural tendency to look to others. We have some really good players at both forward and defense. We really pulled together and relied upon our team game to carry us and then had individual performances push through within that.
That is what has given us the greatest chance of success, and it is what you want to have continue: Everybody comes in, does their job, and plays within our structure. The individual greatness comes through that.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #64 David Kämpf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #20 Dryden Hunt
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#30 Matt Murray
Extras: Conor Timmins, Jordie Benn, Wayne Simmonds
Injured: Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
St. Louis Blues Projected Lines
#89 Pavel Buchnevich – #18 Robert Thomas – #25 Jordan Kyrou
#20 Brandon Saad – #10 Brayden Schenn – #49 Ivan Barbashev
#63 Jake Neighbours – #52 Noel Acciari – #17 Josh Leivo
#65 Alexei Toropchenko – #59 Nikita Alexandrov – #9 Tyler Pitlick
#77 Niko Mikkola – #55 Colton Parayko
#4 Nick Leddy – #72 Justin Faulk
#43 Calle Rosen – #41 Robert Bortuzzo
Starter: #50 Jordan Binnington
#1 Thomas Greiss
Injured/Out: Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, Scott Perunovich, Marco Scandella, Torey Krug