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Bye to the Bygone Byes: Leafs @ Rangers Preview

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It is not every day you can write a game preview 2-3 days early because both teams are off. This is one of those times.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Maple Leafs @ New York Rangers
Madison Square Garden; New York, NY
7:00 p.m. ET; TSN 4 (THE QUATTRO!)
SBN Site That Sounds An Awful Lot Like A Blue Jays Site: Blueshirt Banter

The Leafs

The Leafs have been enjoying some fun in the sun this past week, thanks to the NHL's newly-mandated "bye week" policy. As consideration for accepting a 3-on-3 All-Star Game format, the NHL granted every team a five-day reprieve from games and practices at a randomly-determined point in January or February.The reaction among the Leafs of this new break was decidedly mixed; Mike Babcock was not a fan, but the players seem to have enjoyed it just fine.

The bye week has been rough on the fans who have had five days to mull over a 5-3 loss to the hated Habs. The upside to this, however, is the loss was Toronto's first loss in regulation since December 19, a stretch that saw the Leafs go 6-0-1 in between. In the previous month, the Leafs managed points in 10 out of 12 games, amassing a 7-2-3. Notwithstanding the stench of yet another loss to Montreal, the Leafs put up a fairly decent string of games headed into the bye.

No disrespect to Auston Matthews' obvious selection to the All-Star game or the snorkeling escapades of a trio of Leafs in the Caymans, but the biggest story during the Leafs' downtime was the waiver claim of a new backup goaltender in Curtis McElhinney. Given that the Leafs immediately kick things off with yet another back-to-back, coupled with Andersen being overworked as of late, we are all but certain to see McElhinney either tonight or tomorrow night against the Senators.

The question remains which game that will be; the Rangers are the better team, but it may not be that simple. While the backup getting the weaker team is conventional logic, tomorrow's 2 points have more significance on the Leafs playoff race than tonight. It wouldn't shock me to see McElhinney tonight, given that the Rangers- 13 points ahead of the Leafs- are not likely to pose any meaningful competition to the Leafs down the stretch. Andersen, on the other hand, would be better to start the game with significant playoff implications and may benefit from the extra rest. In any event, the goaltending decision will probably be announced mere minutes after this preview goes up, rendering the preceding paragraph moot. (UPDATE @ 11:51 AM ET: Babcock has confirmed Andersen will start).

The Rangers

This will be the Leafs' first game against the Rangers, which is a rarity for any matchup in January, much less with a team from the Eastern Conference. This does, however, mark the Leafs' fourth trip to the NYC area this year, having had two previous games in New Jersey and one in Brooklyn, all of which were part of back-to-backs. A minor gripe of mine is that with all these back-to-backs and three teams in the NYC metro area, you'd think the Leafs could play even one of them in the same city, but scheduling that would just make too much sense.

The Rangers leading scorer, with 19 goals, is a guy you might have heard of: Michael Grabner. If you don't recall (likely because the team was bad and you had better things to do), he played for the Leafs last year. In a full season, however, he only had 9 goals, the most impressive of which he scored using his butt. How did a guy who had stone hands as a Leaf go to top 10 in NHL scoring? Well, unsustainable shooting percentage is basically your answer. His 22.1% is a full 10% above his career shooting average. For context, Grabner's career high 34-goal season in 2010-11 came on the back of 14.9% shooting. He's just a little bit hot right now, but it won't last.

Speaking of unsustainable SH%, that's kind of been the Rangers' jam this season. They rank 1st in shooting percentage, and are the only team at above 10% currently. They started the season red-hot, going 13-4-0 through November 15. Since then, they've had a good, but slightly more down-to-earth record of 15-9-1 as SH% regression has kicked in. Nonetheless, the Rangers have won five of their last six games, and 7 of their last 10.

The Lines

Absent any drastic lineup changes, I would not expect the Leafs to look very different from their last game. Nikita Soshnikov was out with bumps and bruises against Montreal, so it is probable he draws back in on the fourth line for Josh Leivo.

(UPDATE @ 11:51 AM ET: Rangers updated their lines this morning. Rick Nash is back in from injury.)

Leafs

Komarov - Kadri - Nylander

Hyman - Matthews - Brown

van Riemsdyk - Bozak - Marner

Martin - Gauthier - Soshnikov

Rielly - Zaitsev

Gardiner - Carrick

Hunwick - Polak

Andersen

Rangers

Chris Kreider - Derek Stepan - Mats Zuccarello

J.T. Miller - Kevin Hayes - Michael Grabner

Jimmy Vesey - Oscar Lindberg - Rick Nash

Pavel Buchnevich - Brandon Pirri - Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonagh - Brady Skjei

Nick Holden - Dan Girardi

Kevin Klein - Adam Clendening

Henrik Lundqvist

Keys to the Game

-Offense: look at the Rangers' depth chart on the blueline. Beyond that first pairing, it's fairly bleak. The team's possession numbers bear that out; the Rangers are 22nd in CA60 (56.7) and 20th in GA60 (2.30). While the Leafs don't rank any better defensively (they're near the bottom in both metrics), what they do have is an extremely good offense. The Leafs are 3rd in CF60 and GF60, which, offset with a fairly bad defense, still put them firmly in the middle of the pack and above water (50.1% CF, 16th in the league). Throw in the fact Lundqvist has been a fairly mortal .912 SV% this season (though improving), and it presents an opportunity for the Leafs potent offense to strike.

-Discipline: the Rangers are very strong on the powerplay, currently sitting 3rd in the NHL with a 23.6% conversion rate. While the Leafs are certainly no slouches on the PK (8th in the NHL at 83.6%), where they tend to get into trouble is in allowing too many penalties. In recent games, the Leafs have surrendered power play goals simply by giving teams too many penalties to work with. The Leafs should be good at keeping the Rangers' PP at bay if they limit them to only a few opportunities. If the Leafs give them five or six chances to work with, as they have in some games, this could mean trouble.