The Maple Leafs take on the Lightning in a big four-point game late in the regular season (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).

Unlike the last two seasons, the Maple Leafs‘ first-round opponent is still completely up in the air, with only eight games remaining in the regular season. The Leafs could conceivably start at home as the #2 seed or finish as low as the first wild-card spot. Much is to be decided, but tonight’s result against the Lightning will help provide some clarity.

The Leafs could distance themselves from the Lightning and pretty much solely set their targets on the teams above them (eight points ahead of Tampa pretty much seals it), or they could make the rest of the regular season even more interesting with a regulation loss, reducing the gap between these two teams to just four with one more game left to play in the season series on Apr. 17. Beyond the implications in the standings, the Leafs and Lightning rivalry now has a fun and storied history, and it hasn’t disappointed with competitive, high-event games during the 2023-24 season (two Leafs overtime victories). It makes for plenty of intrigue tonight.

Additionally, the Leafs’ lineup will receive a big boost as Morgan Rielly returns to the fold with a chance to help out an ailing power-play unit and groove some more reps alongside presumed playoff partner Ilya Lyubushkin at five-on-five. The Leafs have been scoring the lights out without Rielly or Mitch Marner in this recent stretch, but a cursory look at the Leafs of recent playoffs past shows that even as the team’s offense slows down, Rielly is often in the middle of a lot of what they do produce at the most critical time of year. Getting him back with enough time to ramp up for the postseason is nothing but positive news.

In net, Joseph Woll will start tonight at a time when Ilya Samsonov is strengthening his grip for the #1 job for opening night of the postseason.

Game Day Quotes

Jon Cooper on Auston Matthews’ 70-goal chase:

I have had the privilege of not only being behind the bench back when he was playing in 2016, but I have a 13-year-old son, and he is one of the guys where you go, “That is how you can shoot a puck,” or, “That is how you can shoot it from your ankles.”

He is gifted. On top of that, he is a hell of a guy. I like watching that guy play. Hopefully, for 60 minutes tonight, he doesn’t do the things he does most of the time he plays this game. He is a player.

Alex Ovechkin, in our generation, has been the guy. When you pair the numbers up of Auston and Ovi, you were thinking Ovi was untouchable, but Auston is pretty much not only touching him but has done better than he has at certain times.

We are talking about the elite of the elite and some of the most gifted ever to play the game. He is not a kid anymore. He has done it for quite some time. It is very impressive.

Cooper on his team turning it on in the last month as they look to secure a playoff spot: 

It is kind of weird that last year, at Christmas, we knew we were playing the Leafs. This year, at Christmas, we knew we weren’t playing the Leafs. It has been one of those years.

I don’t know what our point total was a year ago today, but we are not too far off. But we got to this point in a different way.

A playoff spot is a playoff spot. Right now, it is ours to lose. It would be shame on us if we don’t get in. But these guys, in the month of March, have put us in a spot where, on March 1, we were maybe thinking it wasn’t going to be like this.

I am proud of the guys for what they have done. Every year is different.

We just played that outdoor game two years ago in Nashville. There is a team picture. Out of the 23 guys, there are only eight guys left. It was two years ago.

There is a good core here, but there are a lot of new guys. Sometimes it takes a little time for the guys to mesh.

What I do know: When it got time to get going, these guys have kicked it in. We still have work left, but I like what they have done in the past month.

Sheldon Keefe on the importance of home-ice advantage in the playoffs:

It is more focusing on your team and getting prepared. You see where chips fall. We were in this situation last season as well. It was pretty similar.

I don’t think we saw it as much of anything to look at or aspire to a few weeks ago. It was not even within reach, but things have evened out a little bit.

I don’t think it changes our mindset. We have been good in both places. We have had home ice in the past. It is really about who is most prepared to play and who has their game in order when the time comes. Wherever the games are played, we will be ready.

Morgan Rielly on his return to the lineup: 

It feels good. You just want to come back and help the team and pick up where you left off. It’s not always easy coming back, but it hasn’t been that long, so I don’t expect any issues.

Rielly on the challenge the Lightning present: 

They’re a good team. They’re deep. I mean, we know them well from the last couple seasons, so I think we know what to expect in terms of their speed, their skill, and they’re very competitive. They’ve got a couple guys that are having an outstanding season, so you know we’ll be ready to go tonight.

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

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

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #34 Auston Matthews – #11 Max Domi
#74 Bobby McMann – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#23 Matthew Knies – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #89 Nick Robertson
#24 Connor Dewar – #64 David Kampf – #75 Ryan Reaves

#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#2 Simon Benoit – #22 Jake McCabe
#78 T.J Brodie – #25 Conor Timmins

Starter: #60 Joseph Woll
#35 Ilya Samsonov

Scratched: Mark Giordano, Marshall Rifai, Noah Gregor
Injured: Calle Jarnkrok, Mitch Marner, Timothy Liljegren, Joel Edmundson

Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines

#10 Anthony Duclair – #21 Brayden Point – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#91 Steven Stamkos – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #38 Brandon Hagel
#23 Michael Eyssimont – #20 Nicholas Paul – #41 Mitchell Chaffee
#84 Tanner Jeannot – #11 Luke Glendening – #64 Tyler Motte

#77 Victor Hedman – #43 Darren Raddysh
#7 Haydn Fleury – #81 Erik Cernak
#78 Emil Martinsen-Lilleberg – #24 Matt Dumba

Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#90 Matt Tomkins

Injured/Out: Conor Sheary, Austin Watson, Nick Perbix, Calvin De Haan, Mikhail Sergachev, Jonas Johansson