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Toronto Maple Leafs game preview: Play nice, your mom is watching

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The top two teams in the NHL battle for the first time this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning

Time: 7:30 p.m.

Location: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida

Broadcast/Streaming: Sportsnet Ontario, TVA Sports, NHL.tv

Opponent SBNation Site: Raw Charge

It’s been a long time since the Maple Leafs were at the top of the NHL standings, but here we are. Well, in second place but it’s pretty close to the top. The only team that sits above us is tonight’s opponent: Tampa Bay.

It’s an especially important challenge for the Leafs. A lot of people have been pointing at the team lately, asking if they’re tough enough to go up against the Bruins in the playoffs.

What we should be focusing on is this: can the Maple Leafs out play, out skate, and out score the most talented team in the NHL right now?

The Lightning are on a seven game win streak, with none of those wins coming in front of their starting goalie. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been out with a broken foot, leaving the Bolts with Louis Domingue and journeyman Eddie Pasquale in net. In those seven games they haven’t had to worry about who’s in net, since they scored five goals three times, six goals twice, and seven goals once. There was the odd duck of a 3-2 win over the Bruins, but they were coming off a four game road trip, so we can excuse the fatigue.

That’s the worrying part of tonight. This team saw their weakness and played to their strengths to compensate. It’s like if the Leafs had to rely on a duo of Garret Sparks and Eamon McAdam and had a seven game win streak. It’s possible, but no one would believe you if you told them. And now, just in time for the Leafs to come calling, Vasilevskiy is back, and is set to get the start tonight opposite Frederik Andersen.

The Maple Leafs are no slouches, they’ve gone 5-1-1 in their past seven and added to their roster with the return of William Nylander. They’ve had Freddie Andersen in net most of the time, and the team is relatively healthy - only missing Zach Hyman due to suspension. SO why does this game feel a lot heavier than it should be - after all the Maple Leafs aren’t at the bottom of the standings.

To me, what’s worrying me is the Lightning have gelled together in a way the Leafs haven’t. They’ve had a roster disruption with Nylander’s return and are still working out those new line kinks. The Lightning also have score 17 more goals, and have a +39 differential to the Leafs +28. Silly things to be worried about, but no one team makes me more scared about the Leafs playoff chances than the Lightning. The Leafs are faster and more skilled than anyone else in the Eastern Conference. Except the Lightning.

Maple Leafs

Forward Lines

Connor Brown - John Tavares - Mitchell Marner
Andreas Johnsson - Auston Matthews - Kasperi Kapanen
Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - William Nylander
Par Lindholm - Frederik Gauthier - Tyler Ennis

Defence Pairings

Morgan Rielly - Ron Hainsey
Jake Gardiner - Nikita Zaitsev
Travis Dermott - Igor Ozhiganov

Goaltenders

Frederik Andersen
Garret Sparks

Tampa Bay Lightning

With an optional skate in Tampa today, these are the projected lines:

Forward Lines

Ondrej Palat - Steven Stamkos - Yanni Gourde
Tyler Johnson - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn - Anthony Cirelli - J.T. Miller
Mathieu Joseph - Cedric Paquette - Ryan Callahan

Defence Pairings

Victor Hedman - Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh - Erik Cernak
Braydon Coburn - Mikhail Sergachev

Goaltenders

Louis Domingue
Andrei Vasilevskiy


Some extra motivation for the players tonight.

I’m also looking forward to this game because it’s featuring almost all of the Lightning prospects I watched at the 2017 Memorial Cup in Windsor. Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli were there for the Otters and Mathieu Joseph was representing the Saint John Sea Dogs. All we’re missing is Taylor Raddysh to complete the set.

They were a great bunch of players to watch and it’s also showing what a great job the Lightning have done in building their team. It’s what we hope the Leafs will be able to do in three or four years. Just plug some awesome kids on ELCs into the line up to fill out the bottom of the line up roles and keep kicking ass while you spend the money on the big names. It’s not the most guaranteed road to success, but it’s working for the Lightning right now anyway.

Plus, after we horrifically beat the Lightning tonight, we know they can handle some devastating losses.