After winning back-to-back games despite being heavily out-chanced in both contests, the Maple Leafs head to Elmont to face an Islanders team that has won five of seven (7:30 p.m. EST, TSN4).
Through all the talk lately of the Leafs‘ underlying play and how their ability to control the run of play has plummeted since the trade deadline, one thing has been a constant — change. Ryan O’Rielly’s injury was the tipping point, as it arguably made it easier for the coaching staff to play seven defensemen, which then took away most of the consistency and normalcy at forward. Then, the night they decided to go back to a full four-line setup, Noel Acciari’s night off forced Wayne Simmonds back into the lineup.
While none of this is more than a small excuse for their underlying numbers dipping, it has no doubt made things more difficult for the team. Tonight, with T.J Brodie scratched after sustaining a minor injury while blocking a shot against Ottawa, it’s the d-corps that will have to deal with some shakeups. At forward, Noel Acciari is ready to go after missing a game and will rejoin one of Sheldon Keefe’s favourite pairings in David Kampf and Zach Aston-Reese.
Possibly the most interesting thing that Keefe and his coaching staff decided to change in the second half of the Friday-Saturday back-to-back was keeping both Mitch Marner and William Nylander off of Auston Matthews’ line.
It’s not something that has been done very often in Keefe’s tenure (Matthews played a little over four games with Micheal Bunting and Ondrej Kase in the first half of last season) but considering that the trio of Kerfoot-Matthews-Jarnkrok was the only line to generate any respectable volume of chances at five-on-five, it’s not surprising to see them stick with it tonight.
While Pierre Engvall’s start in Long Island hasn’t exactly been seamless, he has thus far been a very worthwhile investment for Lou Lamoriello and his staff. He started his tenure on the Islanders’ top line with Bo Horvat and Anders Lee and stuck there for three games before getting benched for an entire second period and finishing his third game with only 8:23 of ice time.
Things quickly looked up, however, and he scored in his next game and got more of a regular shift. In the three games since he has two goals, two assists, and seven shots on goal while averaging 15:46 of ice time. Tonight will be Engvall’s third game on a line with veterans Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri.
Taking Engvall’s previous spot with their top-line duo of Anders Lee and Bo Horvat is Swedish rookie Simon Holmstrom. Despite remaining on their roster and in the lineup most of the year, Holmstrom has the surface appearance of an NHL/AHL tweener who has yet to find a role at the top level. He has played 43 games this season but only has five points (four goals, one assist), and only 29 shots while producing a relative xGoals rating of -0.5 and a relative GF% of -18.
Of course, the Islander’s most dangerous weapon is their goaltending. There are only so many examples of goalies that have posted truly fantastic numbers on rather average teams this season, and Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin are two of them. Sorokin, the defacto starter and Vezina candidate, will start tonight after winning eight of his last 11 starts while only giving up an average of 2.2 goals a game.
It could be far from normal in the Leafs‘ net tonight, with Ilya Samsonov’s wife due to go into labour anytime. If Samsonov, due to start tonight, does have to fly home last minute, Joseph Woll is ready to back up while Matt Murray would get the start.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on what he’d like to see from the Tavares-Marner combo:
Looking to spend more time in the offensive zone would be a big thing. Honestly, putting Mitch on that line is something that will help — we did it the other day in the third period at home. We wanted to look to change things up in Carolina even. We liked what we got there but it didn’t necessarily translate on the road. We’re a more rested team today and it’s a different opportunity today so we’re hoping for things to a step there.
Keefe on Tavares’ brief dry spell:
We don’t need to make a bigger deal of it then it is. He’s played lots with Mitch and Mitch has played lots with [Bunting] — I expect that line to get going.
Keefe on why the Islanders are a tougher-than-expected challenge right now:
They’re defending real well right now. Obviously, we know their goaltending is the strength and foundation of their team and gives them chance to win every night. They’re defending real hard and protecting the goaltender so that makes it even harder. They play hard and structure and simple game.
Our opponents are demanding [structure]. Whether it’s teams who are firmly in [the playoffs] but are at the top of the league, or teams like Ottawa who are fighting for their lives. We’ve got a team here in the Islanders that has done a good of putting themselves in a good position, so they want to stay there. Another tough road trip for us here in terms of the amount of games and the challenge.
Keefe on how he feels about William Nylander following his comments yesterday:
We talked about Willy yesterday — I think his game in Ottawa, despite being a back-to-back, was a step in the right direction. If that continues, then that group will get going as well.
John Tavares on getting his game back to its highest level:
Just playing well — being good with my habits in the D-zone and details that you need in all three zones to feel like your game is in sync. Just having execution — its a long season and its a grind so there are times where things feel in rhythm and other times where you’re trying to build habits and helping the team out other ways.
Tavares on playing with Micheal Bunting again:
It’s a little different, we haven’t played a while lot together but something we talked about is that we both like to be around the net, so we need to make sure we still have good spacing and read off of each other. We can break down the opponent, especially in the offensive zone with the ability to move the puck, creating spacing and being in the right spot.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #34 Auston Matthews – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#58 Michael Bunting – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#74 Bobby McMann – #28 Sam Lafferty – #88 William Nylander
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #52 Noel Acciari
#22 Jake McCabe – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#44 Morgan Rielly – #56 Erik Gustaffson
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#30 Matt Murray
Extras: Conor Timmins, Wayne Simmonds, Luke Schenn, Joe Woll
Injured: T.J Brodie (day-to-day), Ryan O’Reilly, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete, Alex Steeves
New York Islanders Projected Lines
#27 Anders Lee – #14 Bo Horvat – #10 Simon Holmstrom
#18 Pierre Engvall – #29 Brock Nelson – #21 Kyle Palmeri
#11 Zach Parise – #44 Jean-Gabriel Pageau – #20 Hudson Fasching
#17 Matt Martin – #53 Casey Cizikas – #15 Cal Clutterbuck
#3 Adam Pelech – #24 Scott Mayfield
#28 Alexander Romanov – #6 Ryan Pulock
#48 Samuel Bolduc – #8 Noah Dobson
Starter: #30 Ilya Sorokin
#40 Semyon Varlamov
Injured: Oliver Wahlstrom, Matthew Barzal, Josh Bailey, Sebastian Aho