While over the last two weeks every game played by the Toronto Maple Leafs (29-25-7) has been deemed “the most important game of the season” tonight’s match-up versus the Washington Capitals (30-26-5) definitely fits that bill. The Leafs are currently sitting in a tie with the Capitals for 9th in Eastern Conference. With a Leafs win tonight and a loss by either the Winnipeg Jets or Florida Panthers – preferably both of them – Toronto would jump back into a playoff position. While the past couple of weeks have been all doom and gloom around the blue and white, they have certainly played better in their past two games, and should they produce the same effort and compete level tonight against the floundering Captials – who have gone 4-7-1 in February – than the Leafs will emerge with two very important points.
Washington is coming into tonight’s game on the heels of a victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night. The Leafs will need to take advantage of not only a Capitals that is missing top centre Nicklas Backstrom, but that is also tired from having played the night before. Washington superstar Alexander Ovechkin returned to the lineup yesterday following a minor injury that caused him to miss a game earlier this week. Toronto must keep an eye on the always dangerous Ovechkin along with teammate Alexander Semin one of the leagues most dangerous snipers when he wants to be. The Capitals have had some goaltending issues in February, expect Michael Neuvirth to once again get the nod tonight following his win against the Canadiens last night. Neuvirth has been more consistent than teammate Tomas Vokoun of late, but that is not saying much as the Capitals issues in the crease mirror the ones in Toronto.
The Leafs will once again start James Reimer in net tonight and barring a complete collapse will be the Leafs go to guy for the remainder of the season. Dressing room leader Colby Armstrong is expected to return to the lineup after having been a healthy scratch the last couple of games. Rookie Matt Frattin has also been recalled from the Toronto Marlies of the AHL and will play tonight versus a Capitals team in which he scored his first NHL goal against. The Capitals are a perfect tonic to the Leafs’ struggles as they have difficulty dealing with speed in their own end. Toronto’s fast forwards will need to exploit the Capitals slow blueline and create chaos in front of the shaky Neuvirth. The Leafs won the last game at the Air Canada Centre between these teams 7-1. Another statement victory like that in a big game like tonight’s will go a long way in growing the confidence of the young and fragile Leafs.
Lupul – Bozak – Kessel
Kulemin – Grabovski – MacArthur
Crabb – Connolly – Frattin
Brown – Steckel – Armstrong
Gunnarsson – Phaneuf
Gardiner – Schenn
Liles – Franson
Hendicks – Laich – Brouwer
Chimera – Perreault – Semin
Ovechkin – Johansson – Aucoin
Beagle – Halpern – Ward
Alzner – Carlson
Schultz – Green
Orlov – Wideman
Players to Watch
Leafs: Phil Kessel – The Leafs’ top sniper has taken it upon himself of late to carry the team. Kessel has been a dominant force in both creating and getting chances. If Toronto is going to be successful tonight than #81 is going to need to have a big night.
Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin – While he hasn’t had the greatest of seasons, and is currently suffering through a minor ailment, the Capitals star is still a great player. Toronto needs to keep him to the outside for most of the night, and hope to not engage him in any physical battle. The Leafs will not want to wake the sleeping giant that is Ovechkin as he can single-handedly carry the Capitals into the playoffs on his own.
Game Time: 7:00 at the Air Canada Centre. TV – CBC. Radio – AM640.