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Photo Credit: © Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Maple Leafs Pre-Game #13: 5 Things to Watch For vs Les Habitents

Let’s keep the good times rollin’!

After besting a tired Sharks team in Patrick Marleau’s emotional homecoming last night, the Leafs have a chance to kick off a new winning streak as they enter into enemy territory. Divisional leverage is on the line, folks. Let’s see who the Leafs are trotting out to counter.

Forwards:

Defence: 

Hutchinson draws the start, of course, because this is the second half of a back-to-back and trying new things is scary and wrong.

Without further adieu, let’s take a look at 5 things to watch for ahead of tonight’s clash with the Habs.

1) Final Showcase Before Roster Crunch

The season-opening LTIR stints of Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman have put the Maple Leafs in a relatively unique position; namely, they’ve been able to use the month of October as a lab experiment meant to judge how their bubble guys — Justin Holl, Dmytro Timashov, Frederik Gauthier, Nick Shore, Martin Marincin, Kevin Gravel, Jason Spezza, and Nic Petan — can handle regular NHL minutes.

So far, the results have been varied. Some players have thoroughly impressed and forced their way into the roster conversation. Others, not so much.

Regardless, these tryouts are ending soon. Dermott and Hyman are both only days away from returning, if the reports are to be believed. And while welcoming them back will give the Leafs a needed boost in the depth department, the pair can only be activated once a whopping four bubble guys have been waived/traded/sent down, etc.

Remind me again why a hard cap is good for the sport?

Needless to say, tonight’s meeting with the Habs holds significant importance. We might have a general idea of who is expected to survive this impending exodus at the moment, but this is hockey. Things change every single day. What was one person’s job on Saturday afternoon can be someone else’s by Sunday morning.

Spots are still incredibly right. If, say, Gravel holds down the fort while giving the Leafs solid minutes in a depth role, do Marincin’s odds of locking down the 7th D spot vanish into thin air? Upfront, would an offensive explosion from Spezza finally be enough to endear him to Babcock and, in the process, bump Shore down to the Marlies?

Whichever way you look at it, the Leafs’ roster is about to look markedly different over the next few days. Tonight’s contest will likely give us a good idea of what to expect.

2) Michael Hutchinson Fighting for his Life

Goaltending usage — and specifically, how it applies to back-to-backs — has been the talking point that has more or less dominated the early-season conversation surrounding the Leafs. It’s the well of never-ending content, if you will. Everyone (including us) wants to draw from it. But regardless of where you stand on the matter, one thing is clear: Michael Hutchinson has a golden opportunity to put the whole issue to bed tonight.

That is, for now.

It won’t be easy. Quite the opposite, in fact. Heading into Montreal, Hutchinson once again finds himself in the difficult position of starting the second half of a back-to-back, on the road, and against a divisional rival. On the bright side, he’s probably gotten used to it by now, at least. Hutchinson has yet to log a single start this season that hasn’t come in a back-to-back situation; his only home start being a 6-5 overtime loss to the Habs in which the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead.

First, let’s get something straight: have the Leafs (i.e., Mike Babcock) set Hutchinson up to succeed? God, no. Not even close. Frankly, it’s as if the coaching staff got together over the summer and decided to create the hardest possible workload any backup could ever see. Hutch could probably sue for emotional damages in the workplace if he really wanted to.

And yet, it’s not as if Hutchinson has done all that much to change their minds, either.

Even when setting aside his winless record, sub-.900 save percentage and GAA that currently rests above 4, Hutchinson has looked sporadic in net, consistently failed to control rebounds and cover the puck, and might very well be the worst puck-handling netminder in the entire league.

These are all legitimate flaws of his, the kind that would shine through regardless of where or when he plays.

That being said, Hutchinson is far from a lost cause. His performance against Boston on Tuesday, for one, was a needed step forward both from a performance standpoint, and for his self-confidence. Battling behind a gassed and lethargic D corps, Hutchinson still came up with a string of timely saves, covered for a few horrid gaffes, and ultimately did what a backup is required to do: keep his team in the game.

It wasn’t perfect. Then again, the Leafs don’t really need him to be. What they need is for Hutchinson to give them a shot whenever he’s in net. And if he can manage to give them one tonight, on national television, and against the Montreal Canadiens, he might just give us content scavengers something other than goalie usage to talk about for the foreseeable future.

3) Momentum?

Does momentum really exist in sports? If it does, tonight would be a great night to prove it.

The Leafs haven’t had an easy go of it to start the season. This is a banged-up team, one tasked with adjusting to some deep roster turnover from over the summer all while missing their number one centre, top penalty-killing forward/top-six winger, and a quasi-top-four defenceman.

That being said, Toronto has been maddingly inconsistent, too. Remember the team’s “statement win” against Boston from a week ago? Yeah, well the Leafs proceeded to follow up their statement with two straight losses; the first at home to the friggin’ Blue Jackets, and the second coming at the hands of the Bruins in particularly embarrassing fashion.

If momentum exists in sports, the Leafs have yet to receive the memo. But that doesn’t mean they never will.

Sure, the Leafs didn’t put on a clinic of craft-defining hockey while defeating the San Jose Sharks on home ice last night, but that could be the blessing they need. For a team that has received very few breaks to this point, being able to kick off a back-to-back by snapping a losing streak against a quality opponent without bringing their A-game might translate to some between-the-ears improvement.

The Leafs are good. Last night’s win might make them start to feel like it again.

4) The Power Play Suuuuuuuucks

Wasn’t this Leafs team supposed to be an offensive juggernaut? It’s insane to me that a power-play unit comprised of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Andreas Johnsson, and Morgan Rielly can look this anaemic, even if they are missing John Tavares. What gives?

The Leafs enter into tonight with just one power-play goal in their past 11 opportunities. Is this a funk? That would be the best-case scenario — funks can be broken. But if this is a systems issue, the path to improvement might be a tad rockier than expected.

Nothing an offensive explosion against their historic rival can’t fix.

5) Body Language

After the Leafs went down 1-0 to the Sharks early in the first period of last night’s, the cameras immediately cut to a visibly upset Matthews by the Toronto bench. And while Matthews was clearly peeved, his primary emotion seemed to actually be deflation The Leafs look like a deflated team. It could simply be the rigours of a ridiculous schedule, sure, but what this malaise is beginning to seem like is a group that does not enjoy playing for their current coach.