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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Maple Leafs enter toughest stretch of the season needing to prove they can beat contenders

Despite what the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rather poor record to start the season may suggest, the team has yet to face much objectively tough competition. Other than the Carolina Hurricanes, every team the Maple Leafs have played thus far either finds themselves sitting at the bottom of the standings, or has begun the year as a pleasant surprise overachieving against preseason expectations. That all changes this week starting tonight with a matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights followed up by games against Tampa Bay and Boston later in the week. These three teams have been some of the NHL’s best over the past few seasons, and despite some slow starts of their own for Tampa and Vegas, both are currently sitting on three game winning streaks to surge back into the conversation of the NHL’s elite.

If the Toronto Maple Leafs want to be respected as members of the NHL’s elite, and be seen as true Stanley Cup Contenders they’ll need to snatch at least two wins from the three games against these formidable opponents. Vegas is due up first in tonight’s game, and with two matchups against divisional rivals on the horizon, it’s essential that Toronto keeps the momentum of their winning streak going by beating a Vegas team that is missing many of their key players.

With Alex Tuch, Max Paccioretty, William Karlsson, and Mark Stone all expected to miss the game, the Leafs need to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself with another horrific loss where an undermanned team outworks them to the point of embarrassment like we saw during the loss to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Leafs have won two in a row, and have a new look to their blueline that has impressed thus far. A dominant win tonight would be a major statement in showing this team is learning from their mistakes as much as they claim to.

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Lineups

DEFENSIVE PAIRINGS
Nicolas Hague
NICOLAS HAGUE
Alex Pietrangelo
ALEX PIETRANGELO
Alec Martinez
ALEC MARTINEZ
Shea Theodore
SHEA THEODORE
Brayden McNabb
BRAYDEN MCNABB
Dylan Coghlan
DYLAN COGHLAN
Dashboard 1

Who to watch for the Leafs: Mitch Marner

After finally scoring a goal, especially a messy one that came as a result of some excellent forechecking, it will be interesting to see if some of the pressure of his goalless drought is off Marner’s back and he can regain the touch that left him top five in league scoring last season. Since he joined Tavares’ wing, the team captain has looked dominant at times, grabbing himself four points over the last two games. It leaves one wondering if opponents had figured out how to stop the Marner/Matthews combo and are now struggling to contain these new lines with the two split up.

Who to watch for the Knights: Mike Amadio

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A former Leaf coming back to play his old team after being criticized by the fanbase? We all know what’s happening here don’t we? A good way to figure out who’s a new Leafs fan tonight is to look for anyone who finds themselves surprised at Amadio’s eventual goal. We all know it’s coming, so might as well enjoy the show.

Starting Goaltenders

After Mrázek got some time between the pipes on Saturday, it’s expected that Jack Campbell will take his turn in net for the Maple Leafs tonight. Campbell has picked up where he left off last season, with a .918 save percentage that matches his career average as he looks to prove to the franchise that he can handle being the starting netminder for this team.

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As of publication, it hasn’t been confirmed who the Knights starter will be but with the team not on a back-to-back for this contest, it’s expected that starter Robin Lehner will start for Vegas as he also has something to prove, hoping to show that keeping him over Vezina winner Marc-André Fleury was the correct choice.

Milestone Watch

Pierre Engvall celebrates his 100th career NHL game tonight.

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TJ Brodie celebrates his 700th career NHL game tonight.

Ondrej Kase is one point away from 100 career NHL points.

Tonight’s game starts at 7pm on TSN4.