The Maple Leafs will encounter their first matchup against a playoff opponent since their loss to Boston back on February 1st when they host the Minnesota Wild tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7:00 p.m. EST, TSN4).
For the Leafs, this game shapes up to be the antithetical challenge to the one in Buffalo on Tuesday.
Whereas the Leafs exploited the Sabres’ defensive fragility with some of their rush offense on Tuesday, the Wild are one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league at five-on-five this season and have won their last four consecutive games by a combined score of 9-5.
With plenty of big and physical forwards in their mix up front, the Wild also play a heavier forechecking game than the Leafs have encountered during their recent stretch of weaker opponents, which will provide a good test for the Leafs‘ competitiveness along the walls in a more playoff-style type of game.
So long as the Leafs win their fair share of those battles and control the territorial battle, they should have a distinct advantage on the offensive side of the puck against a Minnesota team that is 29th in five-on-five goals and 26th in expected five-on-five goals.
The Leafs will also catch the Wild in the second half of a back-to-back (with travel in between) after Minnesota’s 2-0 win in Columbus last night. Marc-Andre Fleury picked up the shutout in net, which means Filip Gustavsson — who has been the better goalie statistically with a 15-8 record and a .928 save percentage — will take the start tonight.
In the Leafs’ net, Ilya Samsonov is looking to find his groove again after allowing seven goals on 59 shots (.881 save percentage) in his last two starts. Dating back to the 6-2 loss to Ottawa in late January, Samsonov is 4-3-0 with a .898 save percentage.
Rasmus Sandin will remain out for one more game — he appears in line to return on Sunday in Seattle — which will therefore keep the same lineup intact from the win over Buffalo on Tuesday.
Head to Head: Wild vs. Maple Leafs
In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Wild in five out of five offensive categories and three out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge against the Wild:
If you look at how they play and every game they have played of late, every game is extremely tight and very close — not unlike the playoffs in that way where it is one mistake one way or the other.
Special teams and those kinds of things are the difference in games against Minnesota. We have to have that level of detail and mindset all through the game.
Keefe on Alex Kerfoot’s play on the fourth line:
To me, he is playing his best hockey right now. When we made the trade, he was a guy I spoke to directly. At the time of the trade, he was playing in the top six and had done a nice job there. You could see his game really starting to come.
I know the puck hasn’t gone in the net nearly as much as he would like, but he is still making contributions to our team throughout, whether it is driving play, getting in on the forecheck, defensive utility, or penalty killing.
He was in a good spot and really starting to come, and then the trade impacts him. I spoke with him and made it clear that those guys are going to come in and slot into those spots. It is going to force me to reshuffle things.
As I talked about before the trade, I wanted to see Engvall, Kampf, and Jarnkrok. I didn’t want to mess with that. Naturally, it put him down there.
That line is as good as our fourth has been. Acciari has brought a lot to that group, no doubt. We are thrilled to have him in that spot. Kerf has also brought a lot there, too.
Ryan O’Reilly on his history of playing against the Wild and the challenge Minnesota presents:
They are a very hard team to play against. They defend very well as a unit. They keep you to the outside. At all times, they are playing hard.
That is the kind of mindset you have to have going into it: expect a hard game. It is not going to be a track meet. It is going to be one about competing at both nets.
It is fun. I have always enjoyed playing against them. You’re sore after most games because of the physicality and intensity. It is an exciting challenge for us.
O’Reilly on the challenge of shutting down Kirill Kaprizov:
He is right up there with the best of them. So dynamic. You think you have him or you think you have him squeezed out, and he makes a little touch and burns you. You have to be so sharp with him and be aware of where he is at all times. He gets into those good scoring areas, too. Just really dynamic.
O’Reilly on replicating his line’s effort against the Sabres:
I’ll probably have a hat trick in every game… No, you want to create offense. You want to be able to gain momentum like that and put the puck in the net. There are other things we have to focus on. Offensive stuff will take care of itself if we are doing the other things well.
Being hard to play against and being tough on their top guys — if we do that first, the offense will come.
O’Reilly on Tavares’ adjustment to the wing:
The IQ of him to be able to do that is incredible. It is not an easy task to switch like that. He has done an amazing job at it. It is just a credit to his hockey sense and his ability to make adjustments like that.
Wild head coach Dean Evason on the team’s shutout effort last night against Columbus despite the absence of Jonas Brodin and Jon Merill on the backend:
We liked our defense, period. There were the six guys that played and obviously [MA Fleury], but the forwards, too. We competed. We blocked shots. We limited the core-area stuff. Missing two guys like that on the backend, Mermis and [Addison] came in and played extremely well.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#91 John Tavares – #90 Ryan O’Reilly – #16 Mitch Marner
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kämpf – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #52 Noel Acciari – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#44 Morgan Rielly – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 TJ Brodie – #25 Conor Timmins
Starter: #34 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll
Extras: Wayne Simmonds, Jordie Benn
Injured/Out: Rasmus Sandin, Matt Murray, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
Minnesota Wild Projected Lines
#97 Kirill Kaprizov – #38 Ryan Hartman – #36 Mats Zuccarello
#17 Marcus Foligno – #14 Joel Eriksson Ek – #12 Matthew Boldy
#18 Jordan Greenway – #89 Frederick Gaudreau – #21 Brandon Duhaime
#15 Mason Shaw – #26 Connor Dewar – #75 Ryan Reaves
#5 Jacob Middleton – #46 Jared Spurgeon
#33 Alex Goligoski – #24 Mathew Dumba
#57 Dakota Mermis – #2 Calen Addison
Starter: #32 Filip Gustavsson
#29 Marc-Andre Fleury
Injured: Jon Merrill, Jonas Brodin