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LGD: Facing down Phil the Thrill

There’s roughly a month of the NHL season left, and plenty of teams are starting to hit that final showdown fatigue.

Toronto is no exception. We’ve seen Frederik Andersen’s bid for a Vezina start to pale as the season wears him down a bit (he’s allowed five goals in each of his last two games, and has just two quality starts in his last seven appearances), and the rest of the team is inevitably reaching that point where they just want to get to the postseason, already.

The bad news is that they’re coming off a game where they got absolutely curb-stomped by the Buffalo Sabres, who have been trading off with the Arizona Coyotes as the league’s last-place team lately.

The good news, though, is that the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will face Toronto at the other end of the ice, have been icing a tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith in net due to a concussion for Matt Murray; if there was any place for Toronto’s offense to strike, this is it.

THE LEAFS

One of the biggest hits to Toronto’s performance over the last few weeks has been the absence of Auston Matthews, which cannot be understated in terms of how important it is to the team’s success.

He’s in a no-contact jersey, but has been practicing with the team – so there’s hope he’ll be back soon. He won’t be back in time for tonight’s game, though, which is a huge bummer.

This means that the Nylander-at-center experiment is still ongoing, as he attempts to fill in as the top line pivot between Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman.

I’m excited to see what Plekanec can do as the fourth line guy against this Pittsburgh lineup, as he’s one of Montreal’s former players that I really, really like. I’m not all too sure about the defense, but Roman Polak has to be out there… to… hit someone, or something. He brings the physical presence on the back end that Toronto otherwise somewhat lacks, which is fine.

If Phil hopes to score a hat trick and prove his haters wrong, there’s also someone on Toronto’s side who may look to rise to the occasion as well. As one of Toronto’s later-blooming prospects (whom I have admittedly always been way too high on), Kasperi Kapanen has a chance to show Pittsburgh that even if they made the right call in the Kessel trade, they still lost something of value. He’ll sit on the right wing on Plekanec’s fourth line.

THE PENGUINS

I know that Steve Simmons wants the world to forget that Phil and his hot dog obsession ever played on the Leafs, but the brother of gold medal Olympian Amanda Kessel has been lighting it up for Pittsburgh – not just all year, but over the last few weeks in particular.

On the year, he has 28 goals and 77 points, which is dangerously close to his scoring career high (which is currently 82 points, earned with Toronto in 2012) and is good for seventh league-wide.

It really says a lot about just how stupid good Pittsburgh’s offense is, though, that the guy who has nearly 80 points is currently paling in comparison to the legitimate Hart-worthy performance that Evgeni Malkin has been putting up this year. He sits second in scoring league-wide with 84 points, behind only Nikita Kucherov – and then in an almost unfair bit of showboating, the team ALSO has Sidney Crosby sitting 11th overall in the scoring race with 73 points of his own.

There’s no Bryan Rust, who is out with a concussion of his own, but that almost may be a complete non-factor given the rest of Pittsburgh’s depth.

Not really much to write home about on Pittsburgh’s defense, though, which couples with their giant question mark in net to put them three points behind Toronto.

STARTING GOALIES

Last month, Winnipeg Jets starter and fellow Vezina short-list candidate Connor Hellebuyck told The Athletic Winnipeg that his trainer thinks 60 starts a season is an ideal number to prevent unnecessary fatigue.

Apparently, Toronto thinks that’s the dumbest thing ever, because Andersen is back in net again.

On one hand, we knew this was going to happen; the team made it clear that unless there’s a back-to-back, Curtis McElhinney won’t be getting a single start. On the other hand, Andersen’s league-leading stats have started to quickly fall to earth, his consistency is starting to slide, and it seems absolutely insane that a team refuses to give their starter (who is on pace for for just under 70 games on the year at this rate) a chance to breathe when they have a number two whose save percentage is a .931 in all situations. Given that Andersen is now at a .919 – and his formerly top-five quality start percentage has dropped to just a .596, over 10 percentage points down from where it was in December – the whole situation seems like a hill not worth dying on.

Across the ice, Tristan Jarry is unsurprisingly getting the nod. He’s the next-best thing to Murray in Pittsburgh’s system, has been outperforming DeSmith in their current stint as numbers one and two, and is the team’s backup for the year anyway.

He also has a .921 or better in his last three starts, of which he has won all three. Stylistically, Andersen has the natural edge, but fatigue may factor into how things go in net tonight.

NOTES

  • I know that talking about Kessel is beating a dead horse, but don’t let it go unnoticed that Justin Schultz is once again having a quietly good season with the Penguins now that he’s free of his Edmonton chains. For those in the plus-minus camp, he’s a solid plus for a third straight season (wonder why) – and although he hasn’t been scoring quite as much this year, he’s been holding his own possession-wise despite not playing all that sheltered of a role.
  • Toronto has already defeated Pittsburgh this season, but don’t let it slip by unnoticed that the Penguins now have Derick Brassard on their roster. This is a winnable game for Toronto, especially if Nylander can turn on the jets, but Pittsburgh really has been doing their darndest to win consecutive Stanley Cup number three – and adding one of the much-maligned players from the Ottawa Senators using the shadiest deal of the year is a pretty nice way to do that. Having Brassard as your third line center says everything you need to know about how much of an even match this is for Toronto and Pittsburgh up front.

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