Had the match up of the Toronto Maple Leafs (22-18-5) and the Minnesota Wild (22-17-7) taken place six weeks ago, then you would have had a game between two of the best teams in their respective conferences. Yet tonight we have a game between a Leafs team that has lost three consecutive games, and are currently sitting three points out of the eight and final playoff spot in the east. The Wild enter this evening’s affair in the midst of a dreadful 2-10-4 streak that has seen them fall from 1st in the Western conference to 9th.
The Leafs will catch a break against the Wild as they will be without Captain and leading scorer Mikko Koivu. Koivu is one of the leagues most underrated players. His combination of skill, size and two way play is just a tick under the elite players in the league. If Koivu played in a larger market and on a better team his name would be on par with a Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Patrice Bergeron or Joe Pavelski. Not having seen the Wild that much this season it’s hard for me to preview their game. What I do know about Minnesota is that they play a tight defensive game, and rely on their one or two skilled forwards to provide enough offence. A lunch bucket group, with Koivu and Pierre Marc Bouchard out of the lineup the Leafs will need to eliminate the former San Jose Sharks duo of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi if they are going to be successful.
The Leafs will make some dramatic changes to their lineup as they try to shake off this rough three game losing funk. Offensively the duo of Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel will begin the game on separate units for the first time this season in an attempt to balance out the scoring. Lupul will play on a line with Tim Connolly and Nazem Kadri (a great line from the looks of it), while Kessel will be joined by Tyler Bozak and Matthew Lombardi (in what looks to be one of the worst duo’s to join Kessel during his Leafs tenure). The Mac-Grabo-Kulie line will remain together by default, and Joey Crabb will replace the irrelevant Jay Rosehill on the fourth unit. The Leafs have begun to slump offensively, and with an obvious lack of size and strength on both the wing and down the middle, perhaps this changing of the lines will spark something until Brian Burke acquires some reinforcements.
Defensively captain Dion Phaneuf will be paired with the struggling 21 year-old ‘veteran’ that is Luke Schenn. This pairing is a recipe for disaster in my opinion as Phaneuf is often caught pinching, while Schenn has displayed on numerous occasions an inability to keep up with quicker forwards. I don’t foresee this pairing to remain together for the entire game. Jonas Gustavsson returns to the net following two straight losses, a win tonight would continue his march to become the Leafs’ #1 goalie (if he hasn’t become it already).
Lupul – Connolly – Kadri
MacArthur – Grabovski – Kulemin
Lombadi – Bozak – Kessel
Crabb – Steckel – Brown
Phaneuf – Schenn
Gunnarsson – Franson
Gardiner – Aulie
Heatly – Peters – Setoguchi
Wellmen – Cullen – Clutterbuck
Powe – Brodziak – Johnson
McIntyre – McMillan – Staubitz
Schultz – Falk
Lundin – Zidlicky
Stoner – Spurgeon
Players to Watch
Leafs: Nazem Kadri – Finally playing with some skill linemates again – with all due respect to Joey Crabb and Matthew Lombardi – the diminutive Kadri will only benefit from the creativity of Connolly and net presence of Lupul. Look for #43 to have a big game tonight.
Wild: Cal Clutterbuck – The reigning hits leader in the NHL is one of the ‘rats’ that Burke said is ruining the league. Watch for Cluttebuck to target Kessel as much as possible tonight.
Game Time: 7:00 at the Air Canada Centre. TV – TSN. Radio – AM640.