The Toronto Maple Leafs continue their Western Canada road swing and hope to extend their winning streak against the Calgary Flames at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Thursday. The Leafs have won two road games in St. Louis and Vancouver thanks to their offense getting on track and great goaltending from Frederik Andersen, and will take on a Flames club that is unbeaten in six since Geoff Ward took over as head coach for Bill Peters.
The Leafs are 6-3-0 under Sheldon Keefe, which has been as a result of lineup and structural changes from what Mike Babcock did early in the season. The most noticeable difference has been in the performance of their special teams. Prior to the switch, the Toronto power play was ineffective and structurally stagnant (18th in the NHL, 13 for 74 – 17.6%), while also missing vital pieces in John Tavares and Mitch Marner due to injury.
In the last nine games, Toronto augmented the first unit by putting Tyson Barrie at the point in place of Morgan Rielly and made the group less predictable in terms of their positioning in the offensive zone. The result has been the Leafs scoring five goals In 14 opportunities with the man advantage (35.7% - 2nd in the NHL).
The performance of the penalty kill under Babcock was even more disappointing. The absence of Zach Hyman and departure of Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev had to be taken into consideration, but the Leafs had allowed 21 power play goals (73.1% - 27th in the NHL).
Under Keefe, the Leafs have been more aggressive in pressuring the opposition power play and have utilized different personnel (substituting the quicker Pierre Engvall for Frederik Gauthier for example) and that change has resulted in Toronto killing 20 of 22 penalties (90.9% - 1st in the NHL).
The Leafs head coach will not make up any lineup changes for the third straight game, but will switch up his lines against Calgary. Kasperi Kapanen will be promoted into the top six, switching wings to play with Auston Matthews and William Nylander after Pontus Aberg had slotted in for the injured Andreas Johnsson. Engvall also earned a promotion, moving up the third line to play with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev, while Aberg will play on the fourth line with Nic Petan and Jason Spezza.
“We’re trying different things, get Kappy more involved up with Matthews and Willy, We’ve tried that through each game of late, we want to try it a little more full time and see how it goes.” Keefe said on Thursday morning. “There’s lots of speed and size on the wings (on the third line) and we’re trying to get a little more traction with that line to spend time with the puck. We want to get Engvall more involved up in the top nine.”
Frederik Andersen will make his sixth start for Toronto and Keefe indicated that he may go with his starter until the club has their next back-to-back the weekend before Christmas.
“It’s well documented you want to limit the amount of time your starter gets and try to get proper time for your backup. That remains our philosophy, but circumstances are a little bit different in terms of schedule.” Keefe said. “We haven’t had back-to-backs (lately) and (Andersen) is playing well. We’re well aware we’ll have to get Freddy some rest over time.”
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