The Maple Leafs need a response in Columbus before the holiday break coming off one of their worst losses of the Auston Matthews era (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet). 

We saw an example last week of the current top team in the Eastern Conference (NYR), coming off of a 7-3 loss to the Maple Leafs, locking it down defensively in the rematch the following week. The same should be expected of the Leafs tonight not just because they conceded five goals in 40 minutes and lost in OT last time out vs. Columbus (on home ice to boot), but especially because they’re coming off what Auston Matthews fairly labeled “one of the worst losses since I’ve been here” in Buffalo.

This is a character test for this Leafs team as much as anything else. The game before the Christmas break comes with a mail-in temptation at the best of times — let alone when it’s on the road in Columbus of all places — but the Leafs have given themselves no leeway for anything but their most focused effort tonight. It’ll be a long four days of question marks over the holidays if they don’t take care of this game properly.

If nothing else, Columbus has proven they can create and score if you give them the space and free looks as the Leafs did in the first 40 minutes of the matchup in Toronto. The Blue Jackets currently sit bottom of the league in most important defensive categories but rank sixth in five-on-five goals after scoring nine against Buffalo (eight at five-on-five) and six against Toronto (three at five-on-five) in the past couple of weeks.

Columbus will try to drag the Leafs into a loosey-goosey game with an open neutral zone and plenty of traded chances, which the Leafs too easily fed into versus Buffalo in the nine-goal travesty on Thursday night. As the more experienced and talented side, it is the night for the Leafs to play structured, patient, and together as five-man units defensively while trusting that plenty of offensive opportunity will be there against this Columbus team.

For his part, Sheldon Keefe is expected to make some lineup changes, including switching Mitch Marner back to Auston Matthews’ wing; the head coach cited the matchups on the road, Nylander not playing a direct role in most of Matthews’ goals of late, and the Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander combination representing his best line this season.

On defense, based on the practice lines from Friday, it appears Conor Timmins will make way for William Lagesson, who lined up on his offside next to Simon Benoit. TJ Brodie will return to Morgan Rielly’s right, and Jake McCabe will shift to Timothy Liljegren’s left. This would mean five lefties in the lineup for the Leafs with Brodie and Lagesson playing their offside.

In goal, there is no option for the Leafs but to turn to Martin Jones tonight while they hope the extended holiday break provides some sort of productive reset for Ilya Samsonov. 6’5 Russian netminder Daniil Tarasov, who has allowed nine goals in his two starts this season (1-1-0, .845 SV%), will tend the twine for Columbus.

Game Day Quotes

Timothy Liljegren on the challenge against the Blue Jackets:

They’re a good team five-on-five. They score a lot of goals and have a lot of fast players going through the neutral zone. It will be a good test for us and a bounce-back game.

Our focus today is having a solid game where we are good defensively, get the puck to the forwards, and play physical. Good d-zone, first and foremost; join the rush (where appropriate), but the focus is on playing good defensively.

Sheldon Keefe on the decision to switch Nylander and Marner in the top six:

Just looking at it again on the road, I find that Matthews generally is going to get all of the attention, the toughest matchups, and the most focus and game planning. Nylander away from Matthews presents some additional challenges for the opposition.

Probably the biggest thing is that we are coming off a couple of losses here. Despite the fact that Matthews has been scoring consistently, I don’t know if I would say Willy has been a huge contributor to those goals. I believe that Auston could still continue to be Auston and work well no matter who we have him with.

The Tavares and Bertuzzi line (with Nylander) has been the best line we have had all season when they’ve been together. We had them together against Pittsburgh not long ago, which of course was a great night for us. When I am looking at changing things up, it is something I naturally go to, but the rest of the lines are on my mind as well.

Keefe on the struggles defensively versus Buffalo:

It was a highway to our net. We have to make it way harder for teams to get to our net.

At times this season, we have done that very well. I thought we went through about a 10-game stretch probably somewhere around game 10-20 where I thought we were defending really well and really slowing things up.

Of late, we have regressed in that area. We have been finding ways to get results and scoring, so some of that stuff hasn’t hurt us necessarily, but it has been lingering.

Last night was a combination of us not being good and then playing against a good team. I look at it back, and from player to player through their roster, on pure talent and skill, that might have as good of a team as we have played all season.

The results haven’t been as strong as other teams in the league, but if you look at the skill level that they have, if you have a night where you defend like we do, that is what it is going to look like.

Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#23 Matthew Knies – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#89 Nick Robertson – #11 Max Domi – #19 Calle Jarnkrok
#74 Bobby McMann – #64 David Kampf – #18 Noah Gregor

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#22 Jake McCabe – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#2 Simon Benoit – #85 William Lagesson

Starter: #31 Martin Jones
#35 Ilya Samsonov

Scratched: Conor Timmins
Injured: John Klingberg, Mark Giordano, Joseph Woll, Ryan Reaves

 Columbus Blue Jackets Projected Lines

#13 Johnny Gaudreau – #11 Adam Fantilli – #17 Justin Danforth
#59 Yegor Chinakhov – #10 Dmitri Voronkov – #86 Kirill Marchenko
#91 Kent Johnson– #4 Cole Sillinger – #52 Emil Bemstrom
#16 Brendan Gaunce – #7 Sean Kuraly – #42 Alexandre Texier

#8 Zach Werenski – #44 Erik Gudbranson
#9 Ivan Provorov – #78 Damon Severson
#2 Andrew Peeke – #55 David Jiricek

Starter: #40 Daniil Tarasov
#90 Elvis Merzlikins

Injured/Out: Nick Blankenburg, Adam Boqvist, Jack Roslovic, Boone Jenner, Patrik Laine