“I am sure Kyle has that one circled on the calendar.”

– Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan

The Maple Leafs are looking to spoil Kyle Dubas’ first game back in Toronto as a member of the opposition when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight on HNIC (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC). 

Last week, a four-game losing slide left the Penguins only a few points separated from the bottom of the Metro Division at 11-12-3, prompting Dubas to address the media this past Monday when he expressed his continued faith in head coach Mike Sullivan. The team responded by sweeping all four points in their mid-week back-to-back against Arizona and Montreal as their badly underperforming power play finally showed signs of life, scoring four goals on eight opportunities in the 24-hour span.

The Penguins entered the week with a league-worst six 5v4 goals all season through 26 games while clicking at a paltry 9.6% on the man advantage. Offensively, the dearth of power-play goals was killing a team that has now outscored the opposition 59-46 at five-on-five, which ranks top five in the NHL (56.19%). They’ve also been outscored 5-2 at 6-on-5.

In many respects, the Leafs are in the total inverse situation, picking up points in 13 of their last 14 games, rolling along at 25.6% on the power play, and scoring at an unheard-of rate at 6-on-5 (seven goals) to salvage points when necessary. That’s helped them amass a 15-6-6 record that currently ranks second in the Atlantic (six back of Boston with a game in hand) despite getting outscored 60-59 at five-on-five.

Coming off of an outrageous five-goal third-period comeback preceding an OT loss against Columbus, the Maple Leafs are going to need a better effort at even strength from the start of the game against a Penguins team that’s strong in that game state, will have their dads in the stands for a HNIC in Toronto, and is hungry to make up ground in the standings/win one for their GM.

The Leafs will receive reinforcements in the form of Timothy Liljegren’s return from a high-ankle sprain and Matthew Knies’ return from illness, but they may be without TJ Brodie due to illness (game-time decision).

Liljegren hasn’t played since the Brad Marchand slew foot incident on November 2 in Boston and will be thrown into the deep end matchup-wise against the likes of the Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby line if Brodie can’t play; Liljegren is expected to pair off with Morgan Rielly assuming Brodie is out. The Leafs are hoping Liljegren’s ability to move the puck cleanly and efficiently out of his zone will help alleviate some of the team’s breakout issues of late, but some working out of the kinks is to be expected after six weeks on the shelf.

Also of note, if Brodie can’t play, is that Crosby has been running the Penguins’ power play from the left-side half-wall during Pittsburgh’s recent uptick on the man advantage. It is the area of the ice Brodie plays on the shorthanded unit, so there will need to be an adjustment and awareness there from the Leafs in the pre-scout.

In net, coming off of a tough game for Samsonov on Thursday, Martin Jones will start his second game as a Maple Leaf (1-0-0, .902 SV%). Certainly, it’s not a great sign for Samsonov that just four games after Joseph Woll’s injury, he is backing up in a non-back-to-back situation in favour of the third-stringer, albeit it’s a highly experienced and (so far) capable one in Jones. With a high-ankle sprain sidelining Woll for four to six weeks and three back-to-backs on the docket before mid-January, the Leafs will need both goalies to provide competent goaltending during the upcoming stretch of schedule.

Game Day Quotes

Sidney Crosby on whether there is extra motivation to win this game for Kyle Dubas in his return to Toronto:

Maybe a little bit with him and Spezza having been here last year. We have already played them, but coming back here with the dads, there are a ton of storylines. We have to be ready. They are a dynamic team. They are tough to play on any night but especially at home.

Sheldon Keefe on the return of Timothy Liljegren to the lineup and the difficulty of getting up to speed without much practice time:

That has been a challenge in terms of getting him up to speed. We would’ve expected to have a practice for him yesterday, but we ultimately determined for the rest of the group that the day off was going to be more important.

It is going to be a bit of a challenge for him, but at the same time, even just watching the morning skate… It is a tough stretch of the schedule in terms of the volume of games that we played. It is the toughest stretch we’ve had all season. He looks like someone who is fresh, excited, and anxious to play.

To that end, he should help us, especially with his feet and the way that he can skate. It has been a challenge for us to get out of our zone. We expect him to help us there.

We will monitor his minutes and how he is doing in the game. Depending on Brodie’s status, it is going to influence the matchups and the things that Liljegren may face. But he is a good player for us and he was playing well when we lost him.

Max Domi on the urgency to respond to the Columbus game:

We already kind of responded the way we wanted to. Now we just have to carry that momentum into tonight. Coming back from a five-goal deficit is a lot of positive momentum.

A big test tonight against a good team with veteran savvy. We’re looking forward to it.

Domi on Sidney Crosby’s start to the season (17 goals in 28 games):

Guys like Connor, Auston, Pasta, Kucherov… There is a long list of unbelievable players, but nobody has won as much as he has, right? He was my favourite player growing up between him and Patrick Kane. I am still a big fan of him and the game. What he has done is remarkable, and I have nothing but respect for Sid.

Timothy Liljegren on his return to the lineup after a high-ankle sprain:

It is kind of a slow injury to rehab. You walk around in a boot for a while and slowly increase your workload. It feels good now. I am ready.

It has been a long time coming. Excited to get back out there and get my game going again.

Crosby on his experience with Kyle Dubas as the GM so far:

He is a really good communicator. Everyone knows where they stand and knows the expectations of the group.

He had a pretty busy offseason with players and staff putting everything together. I think he has done a great job.

Mike Sullivan on working with Kyle Dubas:

He is very bright, first and foremost. He is a terrific communicator. I think he applies a certain process to his job every day that is thorough. He is inclusive in that process. He empowers people to do their jobs.

Everybody who works for Kyle really enjoys it for those reasons. He places a lot of trust in the guys around him. He is open to ideas and discussions. It is a collective effort throughout our hockey operations.

First and foremost, he has really created an inspiring environment to go to work in every day. I think he is a really intelligent guy who has a great grasp of today’s NHL game and what it looks like. We talk daily about the state of our team, maybe what is needs might be, and how we can improve and get better.

He has an incredible drive to try and improve the team, but the biggest thing that has impressed me about Kyle is how he inspires people around him. He is a lot of fun to work with every day.

Sullivan on the importance of this game for Dubas:

I am sure he has had that one circled on the calendar.

Crosby on the move to the left-side half-wall on the power play:

I have played there before. As long as we are all on the same page, that is the biggest thing. In that spot, you are trying to make the right plays and taking what the PK gives you. That is what we are all trying to do: make simple plays, and the puck has gone in for us. When we have shots, we need to take what is given to us.

Sullivan on shifting Crosby to the left-side half-wall on the power play:

He has had a fair amount of experience there. We have had him all around the power play. He is a talented guy who can play anywhere we put him. We have tried this look.

He has familarity there and he is the best played we have. To get him in those situations and get the puck in his hands is a prudent move for our power play. We will see where it goes, but we have really liked what we have seen to this point in the last couple of games.

Crosby on the challenges the Leafs present:

Their speed, and they have a ton of guys who can score. Auston is lighting it up. Nylander has been playing great. Marner is always creating. They have a lot of different weapons.

The last time was a pretty good and fast hockey game with chances for both teams. I would expect more of the same.

Keefe on the decision to start Martin Jones over Ilya Samsonov:

We talked about it and looked at how things rolled out for us in the next little bit. We thought it was a good chance to get Jones back in there.

Especially going back through it and looking at it, we didn’t give [Samsonov] a chance to start well the other night. On the first two goals, he had no chance. We had full possession of the puck and turned it over. There is no structure in front of him. There is no chance to defend it and help him out.

Now, he is playing in a game where instead of getting comfortable and feeling good, there is that much more pressure on him. We are not scoring. One goes in off the back wall and off of him and in. Things are tough.

He has to find a way to make the next save, but the message for me is that whether it is forwards supporting our defense or the defense supporting the goalies, all five people need to help the goalie and do a better job in front of him. It gives everybody on the ice a chance at success.

It is the same on our breakouts. We can do different things. Forwards can help out to take some pressure off of our defense and ease the forecheck that we are facing a little bit to help our D and help our breakouts. This is where we need to do a better job.

Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Penguins

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#23 Matthew Knies – #11 Max Domi – #16 Mitch Marner
#18 Noah Gregor – #64 David Kampf – #19 Calle Jarnkrok
#74 Bobby McMann – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #89 Nick Robertson

#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#85 William Lagesson – #22 Jake McCabe
#2 Simon Benoit – #25 Conor Timmins

Starter: #31 Martin Jones
#30 Ilya Samsonov

ScratchedMax Lajoie, Pontus Holmberg
Injured/Out: Auston Matthews, TJ Brodie, Joseph Woll, Ryan Reaves, Mark Giordano, John Klingberg

Pittsburgh Penguins Projected Lines

#59 Jake Guentzel – #87 Sidney Crosby – #67 Rickard Rakell*
#19 Reilly Smith – #71 Evgeni Malkin – #48 Valtteri Puustinen
#63 Radim Zohorna – #20 Lars Eller – #10 Drew O’Connor
#43 Jansen Harkins – #44 Jonathan Gruden – #77 Jeff Carter

#27 Ryan Graves – #58 Kris Letang
#28 Marcus Pettersson – #65 Erik Karlsson
#73 Pierre-Olivier Joseph – #7 John Ludvig

Starter: #35 Tristan Jarry
#39 Alex Nedeljkovic

*game-time decision

Injured/Out: Bryan Rust, Chad Ruhwedel, Matthew Nieto, Noel Acciari