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Here are four things to watch when the Calgary Flames take on the Toronto Maple Leafs:
1. In over their heads
Toronto is not a great defensive team at the best of times. That’s fine, though, because they have the gunners to out-score their problems on a lot of nights. That’s more difficult to do with Jake Muzzin *and* Morgan Rielly out of the lineup.
The Leafs are now forced to use Travis Dermott and Justin Holl as their shutdown pair. I have a lot of time for those two but both of them facing top competition on a nightly basis is a lot to ask.
They played big minutes primarily against the Blake Coleman/Nikita Gusev line – realistically speaking, New Jersey’s best unit this season – last time out. They finished with a 37.14 CF%, 26.96 xGF%, and were out-scored by a pair.
If they’re going to see steady ice against the Matthew Tkachuk/Elias Lindholm and/or Johnny Gaudreau/Sean Monahan duo, which sure looks like the case, I think they could be in for more of the same.
2. Shoot the puck
I think Frederik Andersen is a really good goaltender. He’s not playing like one and hasn’t been for more than six weeks now.
Andersen owns a .895 save percentage and has saved -5.88 goals above average since December 1st. That ranks Andersen 31st and 34th amongst 36 eligible goaltenders (500+ minutes).
He’s clearly fighting it and, with Muzzin + Rielly out, he’s not going to get much help from his defense. The Flames need to take advantage of that and test him every chance they get. Don’t overpass or force things that might not be there. You don’t need to be perfect to beat Andersen right now.
3. The perfect solution
Toronto is a scary good offensive team. They have a ton of elite talent and, under Sheldon Keefe, have found a way to get their talented superstars into opportune scoring situations on a consistent basis.
The Maple Leafs rank 2nd in high-danger scoring chances per 60 over the last 10 games, which is scary. You don’t want Auston Matthews and co. ripping pucks from anywhere in the offensive zone, let alone the home plate area.
Luckily the Flames might have the perfect answer to slow them down. David Rittich. Big Save Dave has the best save percentage in the league against high-danger shots since December 1st. On the year, he’s bested only by Jordan Binnington and Ben Bishop.
While his overall numbers have dipped a little bit of late, Rittich continues to make the highlight-style saves when needed.
Against Toronto that’ll probably be more than anybody is comfortable with. Rittich’s success vs HD shots will have to continue to have a real shot at pulling off the upset.
4. Discipline is key
Toronto is one of the league leaders in power play goals since Keefe took over. This despite spending less time on the man advantage than every single team in the league. Their scoring rate (11.74 goals/60) is through the roof and easily tops in the NHL with St. Louis (10.72) the only other team above 10.
For whatever reason the Maple Leafs can’t draw penalties. It was an issue last year and remains so this season. If the Flames change that, they’ll pay the price.
5. End the streak
Mark Jankowski will draw back into the lineup tonight. He has played over 400 minutes of hockey and remains goalless, something no other forward in the entire league can say.
Fear not because there may be hope for Jankowski tonight. The Leafs play fast, they give up a lot of chances, their defense core is as thin as a sheet of paper right now, and Andersen is struggling in goal. This is the perfect environment for a player like Jankowski to snap out of his funk. Let’s see if he can do it.
Here are the projected lineups:
Matthew Tkachuk - Elias Lindholm - Andrew Mangiapane
Johnny Gaudreau - Sean Monahan - Mikael Backlund
Milan Lucic - Derek Ryan - Dillon Dube
Sam Bennett - Mark Jankowski - Tobias Rieder
Mark Giordano - T.J. Brodie
Noah Hanifin - Travis Hamonic
Oliver Kylington - Rasmus Andersson
Toronto (via DailyFaceoff.com)
Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
William Nylander - John Tavares - Alex Kerfoot
Andreas Johnsson - Pierre Engvall - Kasperi Kapanen
Frederik Gauthier - Adam Brooks - Jason Spezza
Travis Dermott - Justin Holl
Martin Marincin - Tyson Barrie
Rasmus Sandin - Cody Ceci
Puck drop is just after 7 p.m. Eastern and can be seen on SNW and TSN4.
Numbers via naturalstattrick.com
David Rittich named All-Star replacement
All aboard the Tyler Toffoli train
Flames sign Rasmus Andersson to long-term extension
My choices for Calgary’s three stars of the month in December
Midseason Vezina Trophy picks
Midseason Norris Trophy picks
Midseason Hart Trophy picks