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Preview: Maple Leafs welcome Vegas with a new forward lineup

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Who are the Golden Knights, and which Leafs exactly are playing them?

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Ottawa Senators Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Vegas Golden Knights vs Toronto Maple Leafs: Game # 16

Time: 7:00 p.m.

Location: ACC

Broadcast/Streaming: SNO, ATTSN-RM

Opponent SBNation Site: Knights on Ice

Vegas is second in the Pacific division with a record of 9-4-0 and 18 points, two more than the Leafs. We all saw this coming, right? Of course we didn’t. But here we are in a world where the expansion team looks good.

Let’s check how real that is first. They have a low Corsi percentage, but their Corsi For per 60 is middle of the pack. They play an uptempo offense and allow too many shots against. Hey, that sounds familiar.

Toronto leads the league in five-on-five Shooting percentage right now, but Vegas isn’t far behind. But they’re 12th in Save percentage, where Toronto is 29th.

So Vegas has played Marc-Andre Fleury (four games), Malcolm Subban (three games), Oscar Dansk (four games), Maxime Lagace (four games) and they’re top half of the league. Hmmm.

Yes Vegas has been lucky, but under the luck is some good play all over the ice from a lot of their lineup. They’ve benefited from teams playing very poorly against them at times, from a tight enough defence their succession of declining in skill goalies aren’t pressured much, and they’ve just plain outskated and outworked some opponents.

The Leafs absolutely can beat this team. The things you have to do to beat the best goalie in the league — screen, get shots in close, get cross-crease passes, pass out from below the goal line — will really work well against Lagace. He’s not good positionally, and he can be drawn out much more easily that a seasoned NHL goaltender. He’s had quite a run for a guy who never expected to step out of the AHL this year, but the Leafs have elite shooters who should beat him easily.

One thing the Golden Knights really have going for them is their penalty kill. They have one of the lowest rates of shots against in the league, but Lagace is the weakest link. The Leafs power play, 10th in shot rate for, which is lower than it should be, should overwhelm them. Should, being the operative word. The games don’t always go how they should.

The Leafs can’t kill Vegas with their speed. They can match Vegas’s pace though, more than match it, and they can capitalize on their periods of weak play.

Vegas has terrible defensive execution. They throw Luca Sbisa and Nate Schmidt at the tough competition, and they get caved in hard. That said, Sbisa looks a lot better than he ever did on the Canucks. But the point to that exercise is that the rest of their defenders are doing very well, driving play against competition that is at their ability level, and that’s where the team is getting its shots for.

However, the magic on this team comes when that bad-seeming top pair hits the ice with that pedestrian-looking top line. When those five players are on the ice, watch out, this team is rolling over their competition. Check them, keep an eye on James Neal and Shea Therodore, and you’re good.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Mike Babcock’s latest arrangement:

Forward Lines

Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - Leo Komarov

James van Riemsdyk - Dominic Moore - Josh Leivo

Matt Martin - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner

Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen

Defence Pairings

Morgan Rielly - Ron Hainsey

Jake Gardiner - Nikita Zaitsev

Andreas Borgman - Connor Carrick

Roman Polak

Goaltenders

Frederik Andersen

Curtis McElhinney

Vegas Golden Knights

From leftwinglock, subject to change

Forward Lines

Jonathan Marchessault - William Karlsson - Reilly Smith

David Perron - Erik Haula - James Neal

Oscar Lindberg - Cody Eakin - Alex Tuch

William Carrier - Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - Tomas Nosek

Defence Pairings

Luca Sbisa - Nate Schmidt

Deryk Engelland - Brayden Mcnabb

Colin Miller - Shea Theodore

Goaltenders

Maxime Lagace

Dylan Ferguson


What of the Leafs though? The rehabilitation of Tyler Bozak looks complete. Matt Martin is a certified star player whisperer, and maybe it’s time to flip the lines around. And yet there they are playing the “fourth” line again.

And what of that amazing third line? It was listed by some reporters at the morning skate as the second line, but even my disinclination to care about line numbers isn’t up to taking that seriously. Perhaps how you feel about it depends on how you feel about Josh Leivo. I am very glad to see Moore back for the PK, though.

Nazem Kadri should have the toughest job tonight checking that top line, while Matthews gets the still-dangerous Haula line. Kadri’s line struggled a lot in California, and he hasn’t been shooting much. Getting him going has to be the key to busting the slump.

To that end, he’s got Marleau back on his wing. This is good. Marleau as a centre could not work long term, and some very kind and informed Sharks fans have dropped by some of our posts to say that very thing. His days as a top NHL centre are in the past.

The talk, talk, talk about William Nylander, who’s in a scoring slump, and had one garbage game on the road trip, was all for naught, and that’s not a surprise. He’ll get it together quickly and the goals will come.

But what is the benefit of playing Dominic Moore more than Tyler Bozak or Josh Leivo more than Mitch Marner? The very weak Vegas depth might be the answer. The other answer might be that the Moore line ends up playing very few minutes while the Bozak line, who were rarely the fourth line for real out west, will play more and feast on that weak Vegas depth. Or you can just swap the left wingers on those two lines and have a good setup. (See below on which line is which between these two lines without Matthews in the lineup.)

And I haven’t even talked the defence pairs! They’ve reverted to normal configuration, which is close to what was played a lot of the time on the road trip, even when announced differently. While Zaitsev did play a lot with Borgman, it wasn’t all the time.

Nothing is carved in stone, and I never believe any line is real until game time, but this might be what we see on the ice tonight. Oh, and as to the scratches? As I said over here, the Leafs should be using their depth. That means for every sunny day with Leivo in the lineup there’s a cloudy one with no Brown.

Edited to add:

Auston Matthews didn’t participate in morning skate very much and the word after it was over was that he’s suffering from “soreness” and he’s a game-time decision. If he can’t play, Brown slots back in and Nylander moves to centre on that line. Which, uh, isn’t a very good line to be honest.

This indicates that Brown is more likely than not going to play.

Small bit of Vegas news:

The first part is the news, the second part went without saying.

Go Leafs Go!