The Maple Leafs will host the surging Pittsburgh Penguins with plenty on the line for both clubs (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).

This matchup is packed with more intrigue than we expected a few weeks ago. With the Florida Panthers stumbling (3-5-2 in their last 10 games), a strong finish from the Leafs could see them earn home-ice advantage in the first round. The Penguins appeared dejected and dead in the water after trading Jake Guentzel at the deadline, but their four-game winning streak has them only one point out of the playoff picture.

The season series is currently tied at one, with their most recent matchup in mid-December finishing at 7-0 in favor of the Leafs in former GM Kyle Dubas’ first-ever return to Toronto as a member of the opposition. Now, the Leafs have an opportunity to deal a significant blow to their former GM’s playoff hopes.

No lineup changes are in store for the Maple Leafs from their win over the Canadiens on Saturday. Sheldon Keefe will get his first look at the more balanced forward lines tonight against a more formidable opponent in the Penguins. Each of the top three lines scored at least once in Montreal in a four-goal explosion within eight minutes of the second period, but the first and third periods showed some kinks must be worked out.

This morning, Keefe noted that Joel Edmundson could return from injury later this week. It feels particularly important that Edmundson, a new addition, gets a few more regular-season games in to become familiar with the group. Calle Järnkrok and Timothy Liljegren were on the ice today, but their returns do not appear imminent.

The red-hot Ilya Samsonov is the projected starter tonight in the Toronto net opposite Alex Nedeljkovic for the Penguins. Nedeljkovic has a 2.82 GAA and .907 SV% over ninth straight starts.

Game Day Quotes

Mike Sullivan on Auston Matthews’ 70-goal chase:

He is clearly one of the elite goal-scorers in the league and can score goals in so many different ways. I think his two-game has evolved a lot. He is a +30-something player. He is playing the game the right way, scoring goals and producing offense. That is an evolution players go through, especially the elite players when they are young and start to evolve.

That is how it appears to me, at least from afar. He is clearly one of the league’s dominant players. Any time he is on the ice, we have to pay attention.

Sullivan on the team’s recent push to make up ground in the playoff race:

I think we have a proud group and an accomplished group. These guys have a desire to win. They have a desire to compete in the playoffs. They are competing extremely hard to try to get us there.

From a coaching standpoint, watching them compete over the last couple of weeks has been fun. We have gotten ourselves back in this race, but we recognize we have a lot of work ahead of us.

We have a big challenge tonight. We have been focused on the one game in front of us. That is what we will continue to do.

Sullivan on Sidney Crosby’s leadership during the Penguins’ push for the playoffs:

I run out of phrases to explain Sid’s overall game and contribution to help the Penguins win. He is an incredibly driven kid. He cares so much about winning. He cares a lot about the Penguins and our success.

He plays an inspired game. He is the heartbeat of this team. I have said it on so many occasions. He is doing everything in his power to help us get to the playoffs.

He is our go-to guy on both sides of the puck. He has a complete game. He has a mature game. He has an impact on both sides of the puck. The biggest thing for me: Yeah, he has a 40-goal season and it is remarkable what he is doing offensively, but what flies under the radar is his commitment to playing the game the right way and his commitment to playing defense. It is an important aspect of winning, and he gets it. He leads by example in that regard.

Sullivan on Michael Bunting’s impact on the Penguins since joining the team at the trade deadline:

He has given us lots of juice. He plays a hard game because he is always in the battle areas. That is not an easy game to play. You are in a lot of confrontations. You take a lot of cross-checks and facewashes. He is willing to pay the price to score goals.

An important aspect of scoring in this league is a willingness to get inside and pay the price. He has scored a lot of blue-paint goals from two feet in and around the blue paint. A significant number of goals are scored in that area in the league.

I think he has been really complementary with Geno’s line. I think he has kind of dragged Geno into the fight in the down-low grind game. Geno is getting inside with some of the goals Geno has scored lately.

I think that is what he does for us. He plays a hard game because he is playing in the hard areas of the rink.

Sidney Crosby on Auston Matthews’ run at 70 goals: 

It’s crazy. Looking at different years — big years — from other guys, 70 just seems like a crazy number. But he could do it.

It’s amazing. It speaks a lot to the consistency he has had. But yeah, that’s a crazy number.

Crosby on the keys to his line’s success and the team’s success of late:

We are just trying to compete. As a line, we are keeping it simple. We aren’t forcing things that aren’t there, but we are playing hard.

I think everyone is playing the same type of game regardless of line or production. Regardless of who goes out there, everyone is playing the same way. It has been the reason for our success.

Michael Bunting on returning to Toronto as a member of the Penguins:

Coming back home to play an old team is always fun. It is easy to wake up for this game, especially with how big this game is for us. We are fighting for our lives. We know it is a big one. I will be ready to go.

Sheldon Keefe on facing a desperate opponent with everything to play for:

It gets your attention, right? You know you are going to be in for a game tonight. The challenge is going to be on us to match their urgency level and the competitiveness level.

That is what we talked about this morning: knowing that the other team is coming in here with a real purpose. Our purpose has to remain to play a good, sound game in a game that means a lot to the opposition. We have to pull that same meaning out of it.

Keefe on the Penguins’ push for a playoff berth:

I don’t follow it that closely, but each time we have been preparing to play Pittsburgh throughout the season, you look at it and see they are doing a lot of really good things as a team. It hasn’t always fallen into place for them, but I am not surprised that they have had a push here with the leadership group they have on the ice and their culture over there.

It makes a lot of sense when you look at their team, look at their players, and look at the guys who drive the bus for them. It is good to see them making a push and making things interesting.

It is a good challenge for us tonight. We want to do our part to make it hard on them.

John Tavares on Crosby leading the Penguins to the cusp of a playoff berth:

I don’t think it is surprising. You are talking about the most accomplished player of this generation, whether individually or from a team perspective. The internal drive has shown from day one of his career.

Tonight should be a great challenge against a team that is as desperate as anybody and is playing great hockey. The highlights of their recent games show the emotion they are playing with.

Bobby McMann on sharing the ice with Crosby:

Times when I thought I had the puck or I thought I could get the puck off his stick, he moved it before I could even get close. He kind of baits you in and throws it behind you and steps around you. You always have to be aware of the plays he is going to make.

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

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

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

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

#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#2 Simon Benoit – #22 Jake McCabe
#55 Mark Giordano – #78 TJ Brodie

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll

Scratched: Conor Timmins, Noah Gregor, Martin Jones, Nick Robertson
Injured: Calle Jarnkrok, Timothy Liljegren, Joel Edmundson

Pittsburgh Penguins Projected Lines

#10 Drew O’Connor – #87 Sidney Crosby – #17 Bryan Rust
#8 Michael Bunting – #71 Evgeni Malkin – #67 Rickard Rakell
#19 Reilly Smith – #20 Lars Eller – #52 Emil Bemstrom
#18 Jesse Puljujarvi – #77 Jeff Carter – #48 Valtteri Puustinen

#73 Pierre-Olivier Joseph – #58 Kris Letang
#28 Marcus Pettersson – #65 Erik Karlsson
#5 Ryan Shea – #3 Jack St. Ivany

Starter: #39 Alex Nedeljkovic
#35 Tristan Jarry

Injured/Out: Matthew Nieto, Jansen Harkins, Noel Acciari, John Ludvig, Ryan Graves