The Maple Leafs welcome the league’s best road team by points percentage (.714) to the Scotiabank Arena for the first game of a home-and-home against the Winnipeg Jets (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).

The 30-11-4 Jets are currently first in the NHL in fewest goals allowed with 104 (2.29 per game) — far and away the best in the league — and it comes despite a bottom-10 penalty kill.

Such has been their excellence in even-strength defense and goaltending that they’re currently allowing 1.66 goals per 60 at five-on-five, with no other NHL team currently below 2.2 per 60. It’s hard to believe they could sustain it at the same level over 82 games — their ridiculous .941 save percentage at five-on-five, in particular — but they’ve been putting their elite number-one goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (not starting tonight) and capable backup Laurent Broissoit in positions to succeed consistently. Per Justin Bourne, SportLogIQ ranks Winnipeg:

  • First in the league at limiting rush chances against
  • Third-best at denying slot shots
  • Fifth-best at limiting cycle chances
  • Fifth-best at limiting inner slot shots
  • Fifth-best at limiting high-danger chances

The Jets are without Mark Scheifele and Gabe Vilardi tonight due to day-to-day injuries, taking some of the edge off a more middle-of-the-pack offense (which struggles on the power play at 16.3%). But this is a great test for the Leafs‘ ability to create offensively against a high-end, playoff-calibre defensive structure.

With Tyler Bertuzzi’s wife expecting, the Leafs will slot Pontus Holmberg — who has become a bit of a Swiss Army knife for Sheldon Keefe of late — into Bertuzzi’s usual spot with William Nylander and John Tavares while reinserting Bobby McMann into the fourth-line LW. The first and third forward lines, plus the defense pairs, will remain the same from the team’s 3-1 win over Seattle on Sunday. Ilya Samsonov starts in goal looking for consecutive wins for the first time since November 17.

Game Day Quotes

Jets head coach Rick Bowness on where his team slipped up in its 4-1 loss to Boston on Monday:

We want to play fast. Against Boston, in the first two periods, we just didn’t break the puck out clean enough. It wasn’t so much what Boston was doing. It was us fumbling the puck which allowed Boston to do what they did.

For us, a big part of our game is getting the puck out of the zone. We have to get back on top of it. We can get back on top of getting the puck out a lot quicker, using our speed, and establishing our forecheck. Then we’re starting to play Winnipeg Jet hockey.

Bowness on the challenge presented by the Leafs:

They can score. We have nothing but respect for the high-end talent they have over there.

It is all about on-ice awareness, about playing defensively, and playing with the puck at their end of the rink.

Sheldon Keefe on the challenges of facing an opponent as stingy defensively as the Jets:

Just getting to their net, getting access to the net, and getting access to the zone. They also do a lot of really good things on offense, too. They are good with the puck and put pressure on you in your own zone.

Two teams are going to be fighting for possession and territory throughout the game and then trying to gain access to the net.

Special teams will, of course, be a big factor, too.

When you look at the top defensive teams versus a lot of the rest of the league, it comes down to consistency in a lot of ways. From the start of the season until now, they have been very consistent in their attention to detail throughout their lineup — all four lines and all three pairs — so it has been very impressive.

Keefe on keeping Mark Giordano out of the lineup in favour of Conor Timmins:

Part of it is Gio. Part of it is the rest factor when you are talking about the back-to-backs and the heavy schedule that we have had. This has been a really busy month for us just with the volume of games, the trips out west, and all of these types of things.

Similar to our forward group where we have some guys we want to get some looks — and Reaves got caught up in that — with Timmins, we want to get him going. Also, the right-shot thing is something that we have been fighting for a bit with the left-handed guys playing on their offside. I have wanted to give it a little more runway with the lefty-righty. We will give it another game today.

It has been a while since Timmins has played consistently. We just wanted to give that a look. In this case, it is more about Timmins than it is about Gio.

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

In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Jets in three out of five offensive categories but the Jets hold the advantage in five out of five defensive categories.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#23 Matthew Knies – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#29 Pontus Holmberg – #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 – #25 Conor Timmins

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#31 Martin Jones

Scratched: Mark Giordano, William Lagesson, Ryan Reaves
Injured: John Klingberg, Joseph Woll
Unavailable: Tyler Bertuzzi

Winnipeg Jets Projected Lines

#81 Kyle Connor – #7 Vladislav Namestnikov – #27 Nikolaj Ehlers
#91 Cole Perfetti – #21 Dominic Toninato – #9 Alex Iafallo
#62 Nino Nederreiter – #17 Adam Lowry – #22 Mason Appleton
#36 Morgan Barron – #15 Rasmus Kupari – #71 Axel Jonsson-Fjallby

#44 Josh Morrissey – #2 Dylan DeMelo
#5 Brendan Dillon – #4 Neal Pionk
#54 Dylan Samberg – #88 Nate Schmidt

Starter: #39 Laurent Brossoit
#37 Connor Hellebuyck

Injured/Out: Mark Scheifele, Gabriel Vilardi, Ville Heinola, David Gusafsson