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Game Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Arizona Coyotes

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Auston Matthews faces his hometown team for the first time

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Coyotes at Leafs: GAME 29

Time: 7:30 pm Eastern Time

Location: Air Canada Centre

Broadcast/Streaming: SN (regional game)

Opponent SBNation Site: Five For Howling

There is one humongous big story line about tonight’s game, so let’s get straight to it. Tonight, for the first time, 19 year-old Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews will face the team that was the main factor in him becoming a hockey player. His hometown team, the Arizona Coyotes.

There will be a lot of eyes on the game tonight that may not normally take a peak at hockey, though, there will be many more on December 23 when the Leafs actually travel to play in Glendale.

Last night I attended the Homestand Sports Late Show and (among many other fantastic stories from many people) Pierre LeBrun spoke of covering the first Leafs game of the season in Ottawa where Matthews scored four goals. His phone immediately blew up. “People at ESPN even I had never heard of were calling me”. They all wanted to know one thing, “this Matthews kid, is he really from Arizona?”

“Without the Coyotes, for sure Matthews would be a baseball player right now” he added.

Tonight is the culmination of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s Sunbelt expansion strategy. Given the endless complaining and mocking by Canadians of Bettman’s infamous plan to put teams in the desert, and the many trials and tribulations NHL hockey has overcome in Arizona, it’s ironic the largest dividend paid back to the sport to date is for the exclusive benefit of the Maple Leafs.

There are many more stories than Matthews’ playing out tonight. This is a battle of two teams both near the bottom of the standings in their conference. One is on the way up, the other, not so much. Yet. There are also many familiar faces on the opponent’s roster.

Toronto Maple Leafs (unconfirmed)

Forward Lines

Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner
Leo Komarov - Nazem Kadri - Connor Brown
Matt Martin - Ben Smith - Nikita Soshnikov

Defence Pairings

Morgan Rielly - Nikita Zaitsev
Jake Gardiner - Connor Carrick
Matt Hunwick - Roman Polak

Goaltenders

Frederik Andersen
Antoine Bibeau

Arizona Coyotes (unconfirmed)

Forward Lines

Brendan Perlini - Martin Hanzal - Radim Vrbata
Tobias Rieder - Jordan Martinook - Shane Doan
Jamie McGinn - Peter Holland - Anthony Duclair
Lawson Crouse - Christian Dvorak - Josh Jooris

Defence Pairings

Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Michael Stone
Alex Goligoski - Anthony DeAngelo
Jakob Chychrun - Luke Schenn

Goaltenders

Mike Smith
Louis Domingue

Well look at that, it’s our old friend, Toronto’s own Peter Holland. He made his debut for the Coyotes on Tuesday, picking up 2 assists in their 4-1 victory over the Red Wings. Count on Holland to make some plays tonight.

There’s another familiar name there too. It’s ex-future Leafs captain Luke Schenn! Yes, the team famous for picking up dead-weight contracts has picked up 229 pound Luke Schenn. The one-time fifth overall draft pick has 0 goals and two assists in 25 games. I’m sorry, but I simply cannot help myself.

One player with a Leafs connection whom we will not see tonight is Max Domi. Domi sustained a sever hand injury in a game last week vs. Calgary when he got into a fight with the Flames’ Garnet Hathaway.

You can talk about how important it is to “stand up for your teammates”, which is what Domi was doing, but there’s also a maturity that needs to be acquired to allow one to recognize the greater good. I have written before that if you want to attempt to define a vague hockey term like character, one place to start is demonstrating a player knows when to keep his emotions in check and choose to walk away.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Arizona Coyotes Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps what Domi did was admirable, but, he is one the Coyotes most important players, second in points, still, even having missed three games since. Now he is out for weeks, maybe a few months. This is not a good outcome for a team near last place (benefits of tanking aside).

The Coyotes sit with the second worst goal differential in the league, at -25 (the Avalanche are -27). Yet goaltender Mike Smith is doing his part to keep them in the game, carrying an astounding 0.929 all situations sv% through 15 games played this season. However that doesn’t help when you can’t score.

You don’t need to look far past the raw stats here. The Coyotes have three players over 0.5 points-per-game; Vrbata, the injured Domi, and the also injured Brad Richardson. Yes, Richardson is still around, and he was having a good season until a gruesome leg snap happened last month from which he has yet to return. So, that leaves only one player on the roster over 0.5 PPG.

The Leafs have seven; Matthews, JvR, Marner, Nylander, all above 0.7 PPG; and Bozak, Kadri, and Rielly between 0.5 and 0.7. The Leafs are a team that can score and tonight Smith will be put to the test.

Of course, there are stories and narratives about the Leafs tonight too. Marner’s goal scoring drought is now up to 10 games. That’s still 0.71 PPG, much better than his much admired by Don Cherry compatriot from the 2015 first round draft, Lawson Crouse. Crouse was drafted by Florida but wound up on the Coyotes when they acquired him and the dead weight contract of another infamous Leaf, Dave Bolland. Crouse has two goals and one assist in 25 games this season. Bolland is on LTIR and will likely never return to hockey.

Tonight’s game will also setup a rematch next week. The Leafs will be in Arizona on Friday December 23rd. It will be Matthews’ homecoming, albeit he will be wearing the wrong colours. None the less, I suspect he gets a heroes welcome.

What kind of welcome the other Leafs will get will be determined tonight.