Game Preview #39 - Leafs vs Lightning
On November 22, 2011 an injury ravaged Toronto Maple Leafs (18-15-5) went in and defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning (17-17-3) by a score of 7-1 in their own barn. Toronto had failed to score a goal in both trips into Tampa last season, so the 7 goal outburst was a welcome sight. Since that big victory the Leafs have sputtered going 6-7-3. The Leafs - for the first time this season - have slipped out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. An absolutely horrible penalty kill has been the downfall of the Leafs in their last three games (0-2-1). Hopefully with the turn of the calender, the Leafs will be able to turn their PK fortunes around.
Not only has the inability to kill penalties effected the Leafs on the scoresheet, but the Leafs have lost all flow from their game over the last stretch. In all three games that they have lost of late (Florida, Carolina and Winnipeg) the Leafs have dominated the play five on five. With the steady stream of players going to the box though, Toronto hasn't been able to properly get into a flow with their four lines. With the insertion of both Nazem Kadri and Darryl Boyce into the lineup, the Leafs can boast four solid lines that can play in all situations. The production of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul speaks for itself, but both Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski have been playing well of late, while Nazem Kadri and Clarke MacArthur seem to have developed some solid chemistry. With a hard forechecking and defensively responsible fourth line the Leafs have demonstrated to be a formidable opponent when playing at even strength. The only problem has been that the plethora of penalties of late has caused players to sit on the bench for long stretches of time, causing them to lose effectiveness.
Jonas Gustavsson will start tonight for the first time since he shone against the New York Rangers in early December. Gustavsson is not a favourite of mine, but I cannot argue with his play of late. Should 'The Monster' provide the Leafs with the best chance to win then by all means allow him to play. The Leafs will continue to be without Colby Armstrong (concussion), John Michael Liles (concussion), Mike Komisarek (arm), Mike Brown (back) and Tyler Bozak (shoulder). Komisarek and Brown are both practicing and expected back this weekend, while Armstrong has just begun light skating.
The Lightning have been playing their best hockey of the season of late. Having gone 5-1-1 in their last seven games, Stamkos and Co. are looking to drag themselves back into relevancy in the Eastern conference. Mathieu Garon is expected to start for the Lightning tonight. Tampa was dominant at the ACC last season going 2-0-0 and outscoring the buds 10-5 in those contests. With Victor Hedman out of the lineup tonight the Leafs must expose the Lightning's poor blueline.
Lupul - Connolly - Kessel
Kulemin - Grabovski - Frattin
Kadri - Lombardi - MacArthur
Crabb - Steckel - Boyce
Aulie - Phaneuf
Gunnarsson - Schenn
Gardiner - Franson
St.Louis - Stamkos - Downie
Moore - Lecavalier - Wyman
Tyrell - Pyatt - Purcell
Oberg - Jones - Hall
Brewer - Gilroy
Clark - Kubina
Bergeron - Gervais
Players to Watch
Leafs: Nikolai Kulemin - The Russian winger has come alive of late. Having scored against Carolina last week as well as hitting the post in Winnipeg, the solidly built Kulemin seems to be finally awakening from his slumber. He'll be looking to continue to build confidence tonight against the bolts.
Lightning: Steven Stamkos - Leaf fans wet dream is that the Unionville product returns to his hometown team and leads them to glory. Stamkos currently leads the NHL in goals with 26 and is coming off of a hat trick the other night in Carolina. He is a power play specialist and may have another big night in store in T.O.
Game Time: 7:00 at the Air Canada Centre. TV - Sportsnet Ontario. Radio - AM640.