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Lightning at Leafs preview: The rise of the minors

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Injuries in the ranks are giving chances to players in the AHL and even the E as the depleted Bolts face the Buds.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs

7:30PM - Air Canada Centre

TV: Sportsnet

Radio: Sportsnet590

SBN: Me and Raw Charge

Jonathan Bernier gets the start tonight, freshly back from his stint in the AHL. He did just fine while sent down, going 3-0-1, with the three wins being shutouts, to end with a .948 SV%. He also said that it did him a lot of good. Did anyone notice what the Leafs did with their goaltenders during this stint? Why yes, Steve Yzerman noticed, and another goaltender who took a tour of the minors recently was Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Vasilevskiy will be getting his start tonight against the Leafs. His record has been abysmal with Tampa so far this season; in seven games played he's garnered two wins, four losses, and was pulled from one game. This has not entirely been his fault, Tampa Bay has not provided Vasilevskiy with the scoring support he's needed. With the Syracuse Crunch, Vasilevskiy redeemed himself a bit, ending his four-game stint at 2-1-1, with a .927 SV% (much better than his .895 SV% with the NHL this season).

The tale of these two goaltenders underlies my point in the title of the game preview: the minors are becoming increasingly important to the NHL, not just as a place to farm out players until injuries hit, but as a place for NHL-calibre players to regain confidence in their game.

Which goaltender will keep confidence and maintain it? Which will crumble? I'm betting that Bernier is the one that keeps strong. He's the more mature goaltender, he's got his starting goaltender spot to reclaim, and Vasilevskiy is young in the crease. This is Vasy's first full year in the NHL, and the rustiness that comes from playing eternal backup is showing.

There's also the matter of a snakebit Tampa Bay Lightning team that has fallen prey to injury after injury from the short summer, almost as though two fewer months of recuperation took a toll on their bodies. Tampa's lines are half-NHL, half-Syracuse Crunch, which brings me to the other joyous part of this game preview.

Not only are there two fresh-from-conditioning-stint goaltenders facing off against each other, there are two players (potentially) in the lineup that have spent time in the ECHL and AHL.

For the Leafs, everyone knows the story of Byron Froese. In the 2013-2014 season, he played 17 games with the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones, where he caught the attention of now-Marlies assistant Ben Simon. When he was released from his ELC with the Chicago Blackhawks at the end of that season, the Marlies gave him a call. He spent last season with the Marlies, putting up enough points that he became a viable candidate for the Maple Leafs. (This excellent article by Jeffler will give you all kinds of Froese facts!) Sure enough, at the end of October, Froese was called up to the big club, and after 22 games, has yet to be sent back.

Is Froese good? I think he's got the will to get better, and if his growth curve so far shows anything, it's that he'll push himself as hard as he can to deserve each opportunity handed to him. Tonight he'll be on the third line, and I hope he's the perfect Mike Babcock grinder, making life more difficult for Tampa's top line while he's on the ice.

Leafs projected lines are:

Holland-Kadri-Komarov

JvR-Bozak-PAP

Lupul-Froese-Matthias

Winnik-Spaling-Grabner

Gardiner-Phaneuf

Hunwick-Rielly

Corrado-Polak

Bernier

I mentioned two ECHL players in the NHL -- the other one, Yanni Gourde, might be playing tonight for Tampa for his first NHL game, a 24 year old undrafted player who has worked his way up the ranks with one-ish seasons played in the ECHL and four-ish in the AHL. (I use -ish because he has played parts of seasons for the E and the A, and it's hard to figure.)

With the amazing number of injuries to Tampa, including players Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Cedric Paquette, Erik Condra, and Joel Vermin (that's right, four of the top six forwards and a call-up), it's possible that Gourde will get his start tonight. If you want to see something utterly cute, you can check out this video, taken after Gourde's first skate with the team:

How can anyone not cheer on the drive of an ECHL guy who fought hard for six years and finally made it? It's this kind of heroic story that keeps me interested in the ECHL, and keeps me hoping that the players down here in Orlando will some day see their faces in the NHL rink of their dreams.

Cooper is already playing with the 11/7 lines that he had in the playoffs, mostly because he's short a whole lot of forwards. Nikita Nesterov usually cycles in with the bottom pairing of D.

Tampa's projected lines are:

Namestnikov-I keep forgetting someone, who is it?-Kucherov

Killorn-Boyle-Marchessault

Brown-Filppula-Callahan

Gourde (?) / Vermin - Blunden

Hedman-Stralman

Carle-Garrison

Coburn-Sustr-Nesterov

Vasilevskiy