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Photo Credit: © Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Maple Leafs Pregame #31: 5 Things to Watch for vs the Defending Champs

Tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs start a four-game road trip against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the St. Louis Blues.

The Leafs are now 4-3 under Sheldon Keefe and are surely looking to start banking some points in their pursuit of a playoff birth. It won’t be easy against a Blues team who has won four of their last five games and has had their way with the Leafs in the past.

Lineups

1) Pontus Aberg on the Top Line

After Andreas Johnsson got injured, it was a bit of a mystery as to who the Leafs would call up from the Marlies to replace him. Not only did Pontus Aberg end up getting the call, but it looks like he is going to skate alongside William Nylander and Auston Matthews.

Aberg has arguably been the Marlies’ best forward this season, with 24 points and 22 games. He’s been a dangerous threat in the offensive zone and is usually pushing play in the right direction for the Marlies using his creativity and skill.

 

In my opinion, putting Aberg on the top line represents Keefe putting him in a situation to succeed, as Aberg’s skill-set should mesh well with Matthews and Nylander’s. In addition, Aberg has had experience playing on NHL top lines in years past. Last year, he was quite productive while playing with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim.

Hopefully, he can reproduce similar success in this stint with the Leafs.

2) The Search for a Shutdown Pair.

So far this season, the Leafs’ biggest issue has been finding a shut-down defence pairing to throw out against an opponents’ best line. Under both Babcock and now Keefe, the Leafs have looked for the answer in Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci. If you hadn’t noticed, that experiment hasn’t gone too well.

When asked about this earlier in the week, Keefe said that he felt like Ceci was the best fit for this role. He also stated that he likes playing Barrie in offensive situations and that Holl is still growing into a top-four defenseman.

I thought that his comments on Holl were interesting. He didn’t completely shut down the notion of potentially having Holl in this role in the future, just that he still was getting used to increased minutes. I’m interested to see how Holl and Ceci’s usage evolve as the season goes on, and it starts with tonight.

Today’s practice lines are intriguing, given that Rielly and Barrie are still paired together. Keefe has started a few games with this pairing before changing it to the norm. I do expect the same to happen tonight but as usual, we can expect the lines to change throughout the night.

3) In-Game Adjustments

Sheldon Keefe is quickly becoming one of hockey’s most unpredictable coaches in terms of in-game adjustments. In the past few games, we have seen a Tavares-Matthews-Nylander line and a Marner-Matthews-Nylander line. Keefe is demonstrating to everyone that he isn’t scared to change opening night lineups in order to give his team a better chance to win. While the aforementioned line combinations haven’t worked yet in terms of scoring goals, they have been extremely dangerous. I think that it’s only a matter of time before the goals start going in.

On the other side of the ice, we have seen Rielly-Barrie get shifts together in order to get the tilt the ice into the Leafs’ favour, something I am fully expecting again tonight.

4. “Toughness vs Skill”

It feels like anytime the Leafs play the Blues, the topic of toughness comes up. It also doesn’t help that the Leafs have lost seven straight games against St. Louis. Hopefully that streak ends tonight.

I personally think the Leafs have more grit in their lineup than they get credit for. When you look at their secondary wingers, it contains a number of players who can play “heavy hockey” such as Ilya Mikheyev, Trevor Moore, Zach Hyman, Andreas Johnsson, plus Engvall/Timashov. In my opinion, the next step for the Leafs is to get their star players to engage in “heavy hockey” on a consistent basis. This is something I’ll be looking for tonight.

In addition, Kyle Dubas has talked about this subject at length in the past, demonstrating the type of toughness he expects his team to play with. He has emphasized the need for players who can win puck battles, whether that is by using their stick or their body. For me, it’s difficult to believe that he doesn’t value heavy hockey when he traded a first-round pick and two prospects for a player like Jake Muzzin, as well as his aforementioned comments about it. Whether this theory will work, only time can tell.

5. The Best Players Need to be at their Best Tonight

At the end of the day, the Leafs’ success is going to depend on the play of their stars. Matthews has one assist in five games. Marner has only four even-strength points on the season. Nylander has one goal in four games.

Of course, in small samples, scoring slumps will occur, and losing streaks don’t last forever. The bad news for the Leafs is that they can’t afford many more of these mini losing streaks if they want to make the playoffs. If there is any time for their top players to step-up, it’s now.