Ilya Lyubushkin makes his Maple Leafs debut (v. 2.0) as the two hottest teams in the NHL since the start of February square off in an Original Six matchup tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).

Timothy Liljegren is a game-time decision for tonight but is probable to play, meaning we will likely see the Leafs with two right-handed defensemen on their blue line. Two right-shot D in the Leafs‘ lineup has only occurred on the 10 occasions Timothy Liljegren and John Klingberg were both dressed to start the 2023-24 campaign and then on the six occasions Conor Timmins and Liljegren were both healthy and dressed this season.

Lyubushkin re-unites with 2021-22 partner Morgan Rielly, bumping TJ Brodie back onto the left with Liljegren — a pairing in which both played their best hockey this season — while the Simon Benoit-Jake McCabe pairing remains together. After a couple of mediocre performances vs. Vegas and Arizona on home ice, will it snap the puzzle pieces into place for the Leafs and produce a rising tide effect for the entire blue line? We should learn a lot this week when the Leafs face stiff tests against the Rangers tonight and Boston twice (Monday and Thursday).

Another storyline to keep an eye on is Rempe vs. Reaves watch as the Rangers’ 6’7 rookie has fought Matt Martin, Nicolas Deslauriers, and Mathieu Oliver already in his six NHL appearances (as well as Ross Johnston back in the preseason). He has a goal, an assist, and 32 penalty minutes in those six games despite averaging 4:37 per night (the least of any NHL player with more than two games played this season).

“I have long arms, but not 6’7 long,” said Reaves of potentially squaring off with Rempe. “It is definitely different from [O’Brien vs. Arizona], but it’s not anything I’ve never dealt with.”

At the offensive end of the ice, the Leafs are going to have to play on the inside and generate enough net-front traffic to make life hard on the hottest goaltender in the league. Igor Shesterkin is on a 7-0-0 run with a .953 save percentage over those starts.

Shesterkin’s countryman Ilya Samsonov takes the start in the Leafs’ crease at an interesting time in his season. Historically, Samsonov has not been at his best when the net is fully contested as it is now with Joseph Woll’s return from injury. With Woll backing up tonight, an HNIC game opposite the ’23 Vezina winner against the streaking Rangers (10-1-0 L11) certainly provides the platform for a statement performance.

Game Day Quotes

Ilya Lyubushkin on his excitement about a return to Toronto:

It’s easy for me to join this team. I know this organization. I know my teammates. It is unbelievable.

Lyubushkin on an opportunity to return to the playoffs:

It is the best part of hockey life. No words.

Bobby McMann on his conversation with Lyubushkin about their fight earlier this season:

I told him he is a good fighter. He said, “No, no.” I told him he is pretty strong and knows how to do it. He was pretty modest in saying no. I am happy to have him on this side of it and not do that again.

Ryan Reaves on whether he might square off with Matt Rempe and the challenge of fighting a 6’7 combatant:

I don’t have the game script, but you never know.

You can’t get strung out by him, that’s for sure. You have to try to stay a little bit inside or you are not going to be able to reach him. I have long arms, but not 6’7 long.

It is definitely different from [O’Brien vs. Arizona], but not anything I’ve never dealt with.

Reaves on the anticipation of knowing a fight might happen:

It’s every game. Especially when I was younger, it was every game. Every team had somebody. It wasn’t anything different.

I don’t go into any game thinking I am fighting for sure, but when there is someone who is a taker on the other side who is probably hungry for it, you are aware of it, but you have a game to play, too.

Sheldon Keefe on what he likes about the Morgan Rielly – Ilya Lyubushkin pairing based on their history together:

They just seemed to complement each other well.

Lyubushkin himself — at that time — brought a lot to our team in terms of physicality and competitiveness, making it hard to enter our zone and hard to be around our net. It was something that we really needed at that time. You still need it. We have improved in that area with our team mindset as well as some of our personnel — McCabe and Benoit — and Lyubushkin will add to that.

He seemed to complement Morgan well and bring out the best in him. Part of it is what Lyubushkin brings and part of it is how it impacts the rest of the group and enhances everybody else, especially when you couple that with Liljegren coming back. Now you get Rielly a partner he has played well with and it’s a good place to start with Lyubushkin coming in with some familiarity.

We get Brodie on the left side, too. Just that one move is able to snap some things into place for us. We like the look of it. We will monitor it.

Peter Laviolette on the challenge presented by the Leafs:

They have only lost a couple of games in their last 10. They are doing the right things and finding ways to win hockey games. It will be good to go out there and test ourselves. They are a dynamic team with a lot of good players.

I think the guys are looking forward to it. It is always fun coming to Toronto and playing a good hockey team.

Laviolette on the challenge of handling Auston Matthews, who has four goals and six points in two games vs. the Rangers this season:

We were hoping he had the flu.

He finds ways to score goals and he scores them from everywhere. It goes back to the conversation about the other players. They have lots of them. They are high-octane.

We have to make sure we’re ready to play good defense. Keep things in check, keep things in front of us, and defend well. If you can do that, you have a chance to be successful.

Laviolette on Igor Shesterkin’s 7-0-0 hot streak (.953 save percentage):

He seems like he is moving and tracking really well. When I watch him play, he seems to be on it. On some of the saves he’s making, he sees two things happening over there when something is happening over here. He is focused, and he knows where he is at. He seems to be in sync with everything that he is doing inside the crease.

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

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

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#23 Matthew Knies – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#59 Tyler Bertuzzi  – #11 Max Domi – #88 William Nylander
#74 Bobby McMann – #91 John Tavares – #19 Calle Jarnkrok
#29 Pontus Holmberg – #64 David Kampf – #75 Ryan Reaves

#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#78 TJ Brodie – #37 Timothy Liljegren*
#2 Simon Benoit – #22 Jake McCabe

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll

*game-time decision
: Noah Gregor, Martin Jones, William Lagesson
Injured/Out: Conor Timmins, Mark Giordano

New York Rangers Projected Lines

#20 Chris Kreider – #93 Mika Zibanejad – #24 Kaapo Kakko
#10 Artemi Panarin – #16 Vincent Trocheck – #13 Alexis Lafreniere
#50 Will Cuylle – #22 Jonny Brodzinski – #26 Jimmy Vesey
#84 Adam Edstrom – #21 Barclay Goodrow – #73 Matt Rempe

#56 Ryan Lindgren – #23 Adam Fox
#79 K’Andre Miller – #6 Jacob Trouba
#56 Erik Gustafsson – #4 Braden Schneider

Starter: #31 Igor Shesterkin
#32 Jonathan Quick

Injured/Out: Blake Wheeler, Filip Chytil