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Gameday: Maple Leafs host the Nashville Predators

Home game: check. Rested: check. Jack: check. No excuses.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Nashville Predators Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Nashville Predators
7 pm on TSN4 and BSSO

Opponent’s site: On the Forecheck

It’s been a long time since the Leafs played the Nashville Predators. I’d look it up, but I’m confident the broadcast will mention it seven or eight times, so let’s keep it a mystery until then. Also tonight is a tribute to Dion Phaneuf, who has formally retired now.

Them

Okay, who are the Predators now? There’s no Pekka Rinne, no Viktor Arvidsson or Ryan Ellis. Is this even the same team? In their last game, a stomping of the hapless Coyotes, they looked like this:

Luke Kunin - Mikael Granlund - Matt Duchene
Tanner Jeannot - Ryan Johansen - Philip Tomasino
Yakov Trenin - Colton Sissons - Mathieu Olivier
Michael McCarron - Thomas Novak - Eeli Tolvanen

Roman Josi - Dante Fabbro
Mattias Ekholm - Matt Benning
Mark Borowiecki - Philippe Myers

Juuse Saros
David Rittich

Okay, my first question was did they trade Filip Forsberg? Is he on Vegas now, too? But no, he’s week-to-week as of the beginning of November. Their last game was on the weekend, so they could start Saros, or go with our old friend, Big Save Dave.

The Predators are a decent team, projected to make the playoffs in a division dominated by the Avalanche, who have underperformed so far. They’re sitting in third right now, knotted up with three other teams all within two points of each other. Everyone in that division gets to beat up on the Coyotes and Chicago a lot, so it can be difficult to compare to the Eastern Conference.

With Forsberg out, they are light on forward talent, and that d-corps is not what it used to be. Saros has been playing well, however, so if he’s in net, this won’t be easy.

Us

It didn’t work the first time, so Sheldon Keefe is trying again to see if Nick Ritchie is a top line player.

Lines at Tuesday’s practice were:

Nick Ritchie - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Alexander Kerfoot - John Tavares - Nylander
Pierre Engvall - David Kämpf - Ondřej Kaše
Michael Bunting - Jason Spezza - Wayne Simmonds
Kirill Semyonov

Morgan Rielly - TJ Brodie
Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin - Travis Dermott
scratch: Timothy Liljegren (all about workload management, per Keefe)

Jack Campbell
Joe Woll

Woll is still up as the backup, and Campbell will get the start. The Predators should be a good test to see if Ritchie can contribute something offensively, stay out of the box and use that famous size against a famously sized defensive team. He’s been snakebit on scoring, and isn’t as useless as the boxcar zeroes suggest, but I remain skeptical.

The Game

The Leafs are taking a lineup concept that just barely worked in a tepid effort against the Sabres and trying it again against a team that beats up bottom feeders, what could possibly go wrong?

That said, the Leafs need the best possible version of every player, and that includes Ritchie. They can’t toss anyone aside like fans demand because they don’t have anyone else who can play those minutes.

So far this season, the Leafs have two top lines that play about the same minutes — although if the Matthews and Marner reunion is permanent, that will change — and two fourth lines. One of those fourth lines can play a so-called shutdown role to some effect, but a quick check of HockeyViz shows me that Kämpf is playing less against other top lines than a true shutdown line will get. There is a bit of an illusion to this third line, not just in how little they play in some games and in some situations.

What this means for the season and tonight is that the top six is the team, and as they rise and fall, so do the Leafs. It’s all about the...

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