In need of a response after a disappointing final 40 minutes in Montreal, the Maple Leafs will host a desperate New York Islanders team that is reeling after four straight losses (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
The Isles are in the midst of a terrible 2-7-2 month of January — 22 goals for (31st) and 35 against (24th) — that has dropped them to 10th in the East in points percentage, precipitating “Fire Lou” chants in Belmont Park Arena during their most recent loss to Carolina.
Those calls from some percentage of the Isles faithful underscore the steep drop in fan approval for a GM who presided over a tumultuous time in Isles franchise history — the loss of captain John Tavares to the Leafs, the arena situation — and had them knocking on the door of the Stanley Cup final with five playoff series victories between 2019 and 2021.
It comes off as ungrateful when viewed from a distance and placed in the above context, but Lamoriello’s dismissal of coach Barry Trotz after a year beset by a weird schedule due to the arena change, Covid outbreaks, and significant man games to injury on defense (with Ryan Pulock, in particular) was a head-scratching move. The team’s five-on-five numbers are greatly suffering without the structure that Trotz’s teams are known for and that allowed the Isles to arguably punch above their weight with back-to-back conference finals appearances in 2020 and 2021.
Among the forward corps, there is a ton of cap dollars and term tied up in players over the age of 30 on this Isles roster. Last offseason, Lamoriello also traded the Isles’ 13th overall pick in the 2022 draft in exchange for defenseman Alex Romanov, attempting to fill a need at left defense that was created by the loss of Devon Toews, who Lamoriello jettisoned in a trade to Colorado rather than accommodate his new contract in the summer of 2020.
What has remained consistently excellent under Lou’s reign is New York’s goaltending despite a lot of turnover at the position since 2018-19. The Leafs learned all about it back on November 21 when they lost 3-2 in overtime to the Islanders, getting just two past Ilya Sorokin despite outshooting the Isles 32-24 and owning 72% of the high-danger chances at five-on-five.
The Leafs enter this game in a much better position than their old GM’s squad but are looking for a little more consistency in their results through January to date (5-3-2). They’re maintaining their spot in the standings just fine by winning five of 10 and collecting points in two others, but the consistently inspired play of November-December has waned somewhat as there have been some uneven efforts and let-offs at points, including in Saturday’s disappointing loss to Montreal in which they led 2-0 after 20 minutes.
In lineup news, Pontus Holmberg has been recalled from the Marlies after his conditioning stint, which bumps Alex Kerfoot back onto a line with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall, while Holmberg joins Zach Aston-Reese and Bobby McMann. He’s still searching for his first NHL point, but McMann has shown enough in his five games (60+% in both CF% and xGF%) to force the Leafs to pass Dryden Hunt through waivers to accommodate Holmberg’s return.
Ilya Samsonov will remain in goal for his third consecutive start despite taking the overtime loss in Montreal. It’s essentially his fourth-straight game after he took over the crease from Matt Murray for the final 40 minutes of last Tuesday’s comeback win over Florida. It represents the longest stretch of consecutive minutes played by either Samsonov or Murray at a time when both are healthy.
“He’s earned it,” said Sheldon Keefe after the morning skate.
Head to Head: Islanders vs. Maple Leafs
In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Islanders in five out of five offensive categories and three out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge presented by the Islanders:
They’re a team that plays hard, plays with a lot of structure, and doesn’t give you a whole lot. They have great goaltending when they do give you an opportunity. We just expect a game where we have to earn offense.
At the same time, if you give them the puck in bad spots, they have guys that can really turn on it quickly and make you look bad. We need to play the type of game we have been talking about a lot here of late.
Keefe on the decision to start Ilya Samsonov for the third consecutive game and whether he is starting to separate himself from Matt Murray in the goaltending battle:
I don’t know about separating or anything like that, but we are going back with him tonight, and he has earned it.
For me, part of how we were moving the goalies early in the season is A) managing them coming off of injuries, and B) trying to get them reps in the net after missing significant time with injuries.
Also, both were playing really well at the same time. Both sort of slipped at the same time. It was harder to have any sort of separation.
We are into the second half of the season now. It is important to give guys opportunities when they earn them. Matt will be ready when he gets back in. He will get his chance to go back with it, but we have two guys that are going to compete for the net. We like that.
Islanders head coach Lane Lambert on his message to frustrated Isles fans:
We are working. We are trying. We are fighting through different adversity. We will continue to do so.
Isles forward Zach Parise on the team’s offensive struggles of late:
We are not converting when we do get those looks. They are not going in for us. We are not burying them. Once that happens, it feels like every mistake we make gets magnified. That is where we are at.
Isles captain Anders Lee on the adversity the team is facing:
We have to stick together. Our guys do. We have to continue to believe in one another. Show up to work every day. All we have to do is move forward and climb out of this hole.
It has been a tough stretch here. This sucks. We have to find a way to find some life, find some energy, continue to build our game, and find a way.
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 – #74 Bobby McMann
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #25 Conor Timmins
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#30 Matt Murray
Extras: Jordie Benn, Wayne Simmonds
Injured: TJ Brodie, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
New York Islanders Projected Lines
#27 Anders Lee – #13 Mathew Barzal – #53 Casey Cizikas
#12 Josh Bailey – #29 Brock Nelson – #18 Anthony Beauvillier
#11 Zach Parise – #44 Jean-Gabriel Pageau – #10 Simon Holmstrom
#17 Matt Martin – #16 Aatu Raty – #32 Ross Johnston
#38 Parker Wotherspoon – #3 Adam Pelech
#28 Alexander Romanov – #24 Scott Mayfield
#25 Sebastian Aho – #8 Noah Dobson
Starter: #30 Ilya Sorokin
#40 Semyon Varlamov
Injured: Oliver Wahlstrom, Adam Pelech, Kyle Palmieri