The Toronto Maple Leafs are suffering one of the greatest travesties to ever occur in pro sports, as they sit near the top of the standings but without a home-ice seeding projected for the postseason.
That’s the perfect excuse to phone it in down the back stretch, but there may be no choice but to continue on with their season-long success on Saturday evening as they face off against arguably one of the league’s most hapless lineups at home in Toronto.
The Leafs are coming off a successful win over the floundering Buffalo Sabres, while the New York Rangers are just looking to avoid their sixth straight loss (although, maybe, that’s exactly what they’re trying to embrace). It should be an easy game – but as cautioned when the Leafs went to face off against the Ottawa Senators last week, there’s nothing more dangerous than facing down a team with nothing to lose.
It’s like Auston Matthews knows when people are starting to question him and finds a way to shut them up soundly.
The likely future captain could get his 69th point of the season on Saturday night, as he’s just one tally shy, and he has a whopping five goals and eight points in his last six games. The team remains inconsistent, though; they’ll put up two-goal performances from guys like Jake Muzzin and Zach Hyman one night then fail to get scoring from anyone the next.
The real area to watch, of course, is the defense. Their performance against Ottawa just a few games ago was partially the fault of starter Garret Sparks, but the lack of support in front of him certainly contributed to at least a few of the goals against. Even if Toronto is able to run roughshod over the floundering New York defence, it won’t do much if their own blue line allows dozens of shots to boot.
I don’t even know what the hell to call this roster anymore.
Mats Zuccarello was shipped off at the deadline, taking away both one of the team’s typically dynamic top scorers and a fan favorite. Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad are good, but they’re surrounded by an AHL lineup and have zero defensive aptitude behind them to speak of. They’ve only allowed one fewer goal this year than the “It’s all Tobias Rieder’s fault” Edmonton Oilers, but have allowed that many goals in one fewer game played than their hapless Alberta counterparts.
There have been flashes of brilliance, for sure. Anthony DeAngelo, when he isn’t being benched for off-ice issues, has shaped up into an effective two-way NHL defender. As mentioned above, Kreider and Zibanejad have been incredibly effective – sometimes looking like the only NHL players on the roster – and Pavel Buchnevich has three points in his last four games, which is about as exciting as it gets in New York right now.
Overall, though, there’s a reason the Rangers have just 69 points in 73 games; they’re not a very nice lineup to watch. Their goaltending has been, by and large, the only reason they’ve gotten much of anything done this year.
After Alexandar Georgiev put up an impressive 55-save performance against Toronto in December, he’s getting the nod again against New York’s Eastern Conference foes. It was his toughest night of the year, but not by a whole lot; he’s faced, on average, around 34 shots every single night this season. It’s both good news for the Leafs, since he’ll be exhausted, and bad news; they typically try to use heavy shot volume and strong offense as an advantage, but it’s nothing new for the overworked rookie.
For Toronto, Frederik Andersen is unsurprisingly getting the nod. He’s been the team’s best chance to win, full stop, and it’s really not even close.