The Toronto Maple Leafs have had a mediocre month, dropping to a 4-6-0 record in their last 10 games while their fellow Atlantic Division standings-toppers have each been on a bit of a tear.
The Leafs will get what seems like an easy chance to get things going again with their Sunday night game, where they’ll host the injury-ravaged Arizona Coyotes at home for the first of the two-game season series between the cross-country opponents.
The Coyotes are without three of their NHL-caliber natural centers, one of their top-pairing defenders, and their starting goaltender all for long-term injuries. All of their major injuries are long-term, meaning they’ve been scrambling to find help all season, and they’re also without winger Michael Grabner to deplete their early season-leading penalty kill for the forseeable future.
It should be a shoe-in win for the Leafs, who have a deeper lineup and a healthier roster. But with Arizona sitting on a 5-3-2 record in their last 10 games and points in six of their last seven games (including matchups against the Penguins and Sharks), Toronto can’t come into the game expecting anything easy.
#Leafs lines at morning skate:
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) January 20, 2019
The Leafs are still desperately waiting for William Nylander’s offense to return, and you can’t go more than five minutes without seeing someone who has an incredibly strong opinion about it.
Nylander’s shot rates and overall game play look like he’s bound to eventually turn things around, but the fact of the matter remains that the Swedish contract holdout has three points in 19 games and a goal differential poor enough to send Steve Simmons howling down the street. The team is saying all the right things and preaching patience, but it’s hard to think that he isn’t going to keep gripping his stick a little tighter as he tries to figure out what’s going on. It’s reaching a point where a snowball into non-production isn’t hard to imagine.
Darcy Kuemper has only faced the Toronto Maple Leafs three times in his career, and the only players who have scored against him while wearing the blue-and-white sweater have been Cody Franson (!), Tyler Bozak (!!), Trevor Smith (!!!), and MASON RAYMOND.
No active player on the Leafs has scored against him, so the team will have to rely on current team point streak leader, Kasperi Kapanen, to motivate them to get things on track. And they’ll have to hope that Auston Matthews, who has three points in his four games against his hometown team already in his career, can keep up the pace. With Arizona’s scoring woes, Toronto doesn’t need to score a lot – just enough to get them past the lackluster offense of their opponent.
Per Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, Darcy Kuemper will start in goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. Tocchet said he will go with the same lineup he did against Pittsburgh.
— Craig Morgan (@craigsmorgan) January 20, 2019
The Coyotes are a fiery hot mess this year, but they’ve been surprisingly resilient despite a train wreck of a roster.
Nick Schmaltz, who immediately put up 14 points in his first 17 games in an Arizona sweater, is out for the season with a knee injury. Michael Grabner, who had four shorthanded goals in just 25 games to start the year, has been out for months with an eye injury suffered at the hands of a nasty high stick. Jason Demers, who had quietly been one of the league’s most effective defenders since arriving in Arizona last year, is set to potentially miss the season. Christian Dvorak is following up two 15-goal years with a potentially season-ending pectoral injury, Brad Richardson is out week-to-week with something or another, and Antti Raanta is following up a Vezina-caliber season with an injury-riddled year that’s left Arizona in the hands of career backup Kuemper.
Still, they’re just five points out of the Wild Card race with two games in hand over the last team on the outside looking in, and as they proved last year they’re a strong team down the back half of the season. Inconsistent scoring works against their favor, but Conor Garland has eight goals since his recall in December and their power-play has finally figured itself out.
The only downside for Auston Matthews’ hometown team? Frederik Andersen is a monster against Arizona. Through 13 career matchups against his former divisional rivals, he’s 7-1-4, with a .936 save percentage in all situations and eight fewer goals allowed than he has in the same game span against the Bruins (he’s allowed 23 against Arizona and 31 against Boston).
The Leafs and Coyotes have opted against the Calder Cup teammates showdown of Cal Pickard and Garret Sparks, who are both being left on the bench in favor of their starter counterparts.
That means it’s Frederik Andersen and Darcy Kuemper, a matchup that would be hilarious if it weren’t so lopsided.
Andersen has proven to be one of the league’s most valuable netminders this year, keeping his team in games with cool, controlled play and excellent numbers. Kuemper has been serviceable, but he’s far from a Vezina candidate; with a .914 save percentage and a game that can get out of hand when he plays too aggressively, he costs his team goals as often as he bails them out. He won’t completely tank a game for them, but he lacks the consistency to put up confidence-inspiring results every night.