Coming off of a loss that we’d all probably rather forget, the Toronto Maple Leafs will look to salvage their week with the second of a back-to-back game series against the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
American Hero Mark Arcobello has been recalled, so the Leafs can do anything! Let’s take a look at how things should shake out:
— Leafs PR (@LeafsPR) December 30, 2015
With the re-insertion of Team USA legend and undersized waiver hero Mark Arcobello into the Toronto lineup, the Leafs are primed to win.
Of course, I’m being somewhat facetious. Still, Arcobello has been pretty ace with the Marlies so far this year, and – if he can draw into the lineup – he’ll likely be ready to show the Penguins that they shouldn’t have waived him last year. He was a pickup from Nashville to fill in for Pittsburgh’s numerous 2014-15 injuries, but said that the Metropolitan Division club weren’t as frank with him as Nashville had been about exactly how expendable he was. Nothing like adding a small guy with a chip on his shoulder back into a game against the team he may hold a grudge against.
Toronto is reeling in the wake of a Tuesday night thrashing by the New York Islanders, which saw the thriving Eastern Conference club score six goals on just 21 shots throughout the night.
The Penguins, on the other hand, come into the game well-rested… but they also come off a loss of their own on Sunday night, which served as their seventh loss in the last 10 games. Pittsburgh is floundering, and it’s becoming more and more apparent as time goes on.
Marc-Andre Fleury is practicing with Pittsburgh, but isn’t back just yet. James Reimer is back, but Pittsburgh’s prospect goalie – Matt Murray – is pretty decent and could pose a threat anyway. Tyler Bozak is back, facing his ex-best friend Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang… well, he’s healthy, for once. We think.
Kris Letang is back in the Penguins lineup following a concussion scare from a collision with Wild forward Jarret Stoll over the weekend.
Head coach Mike Sullivan confirmed that Letang’s concussion tests came back negative, but the blue liner – whose numbers put him in elite company, but who can’t seem to stay healthy and has a history of head injuries – admitted that the hit shook him up. It’s hard to watch a player’s game change over concussion issues, but Letang may be a player who starts to regress just out of precaution.
Up front, the Penguins have split up their offensive threats between the top three lines in a seeming attempt to balance things out. Phil “the Thrill” Kessel is projected to appear on Pittsburgh’s third line with Nick Bonino and Scott Wilson, while Conor Sheary and Chris Kunitz will flank Sidney Crosby and a Patric Hornqvist-David Perron pair will skate out with Evgeni Malkin. Beau Bennet continues to be more breakable than a tortilla chip, and sits out another game.
Pittsburgh is sitting outside of the post-season at the moment, and their biggest stars – Malkin, Crosby, Letang, and Fleury – are beginning to age and are likely in ‘do or die’ mode right now. This game isn’t necessarily going to ruin their chances at seeing the post-season, but it has the feel of a must-win for the club; if they can’t beat a team in the early stages of a rebuild, it may be time for them to start their own.
Tyler Bozak was held out of Monday’s practice for some nagging injuries, but the centre returned to action Tuesday against the New York Islanders. He’ll look to continue outscoring Kessel tonight, with 24 points to Kessel’s 20, but the real threat may just be Leo Komarov.
If you’d told me at the start of the year that Leo Komarov would be third in scoring on the Leafs through 2015 with a team-leading 15 goals, I would have laughed – but that’s exactly where he sits. He’s riding high, and it’s working in Toronto’s favor.
On the back end, Frank Corrado is drawing out, while Roman Polak continues to make us all nervous in the third pairing. I don’t really have much more to say about the Leafs lineup, other than that I sincerely hope that Arcobello is magically put out on the ice for the game.
James Reimer made his first in-net appearance for the Leafs last night since December 3rd, boasting a shutout through the six saves he made in the waning minutes of the game. He’ll get his first actual start in nearly a month tonight, taking on a tough but beatable Pittsburgh roster.
Update: Reimer is out with ‘tightness’, and Jonathan Bernier will be starting in his place.
Across the ice, the Penguins have one of the most intriguing names in the league taking another start in net.
Matt Murray is tall, lanky, and doesn’t look overly athletic. The 21 year old goaltending prospect is lethal, though, boasting a .934 raw save percentage through his three games played with Pittsburgh on the year.
It’s a small sample size, but Murray’s AHL numbers suggest he’s got plenty of talent to offer at the NHL level as well – meaning that while we could (and likely will) see a save percentage regression as the year moves on, but Murray should still finish with strong stats. His 12-4-0 record and .938 save percentage with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the 2015-16 season are second only to his numbers from last year, which saw the former Soo Greyhounds netminder produce a .941 and 12 shutouts in his 40 games through 2014-15.
Watching Murray is especially fascinating, because he seems to be essentially NHL-ready a bit too early for the team’s timeline. More time in the AHL won’t necessarily hurt him, but the Penguins have Fleury locked up for three more years beyond this one – and fellow prospect Tristan Jarry putting up strong numbers in the AHL, as well. Something has to give in the next year or two, which means that Murray (and Jarry) should be on every team’s watch list moving forward. With the Leafs where they are, that especially includes them.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the unfortunate recipients of some ill-timed regression and a handful of injuries through the first half of the 2015-16 season, so they’re sitting outside of a playoff spot looking in.
The Leafs are sitting outside of a playoff spot as well this season, which is no surprise to anyone. Toronto is in the midst of a rebuild, after all. Mike Babcock has been a miracle worker in the stats categories, though, and the Penguins are… well, slowly disintegrating. General manager Jim Rutherford recently dismissed head coach Mike Johnston, but the general feeling is that he himself may be in the hot seat now as well.
The bottom line? Toronto could earn two points tonight…. and worst case, nothing can be as bad as last night, right?