Maple Leafs Set To Do Battle With Hurricanes
Toronto and Carolina enter tonight’s tilt with identical 4-4-2 records in their past ten games, with Toronto dropping four of their past six games, while Carolina has lost three of their past five games.
For Toronto, a win against the Hurricanes would go a long way in solidifying their playoff hopes. The Buds started their current three game road trip by dropping a 5-3 decision to the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night, putting the Leafs dangerously close to dipping below the playoff threshold in the standings.
As it stands right now, the Maple Leafs sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference just one point ahead of the Winnipeg Jets (who they will play on Saturday night to round out the 2011 schedule) and the Ottawa Senators. The Maple are also just two points ahead of the Washington Capitals, who sit tenth in the East, respectively.
With Ottawa and Washington nipping at the Maple Leafs toes and the New Jersey Devils catching fire (7-3-0 in their past ten) ahead of them, it is imperative that the Maple Leafs pull out a win against the Hurricanes.
Thus far, the Maple Leafs have earned just two points against the Hurricanes, splitting two games by one goal apiece.
With defenseman John-Michael Liles out of the lineup with concussion-like symptoms it will be interesting to see which defensemen get additional ice-time. Liles has been instrumental in making the Maple Leafs power play (currently ranked fourth overall) so successful. With him out of the lineup, look for Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson to be given more time on the power play.
The loss of Colby Armstrong to a concussion continues to hinder the Maple Leafs in the grit department. Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson asked his troops to bring more physicality to their games at practice on Wednesday—an area in which the Maple Leafs have been getting outplayed.
Darryl Boyce has done an admiral job replacing Armstrong, but the rest of the lineup needs to bring some additional snarl, most notably Luke Schenn and Phillippe Dupuis, who have not been heard from enough this season.
Anytime you face the Carolina Hurricanes you have to bring your “A” game offensively. Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward has been excellent against the Maple Leafs this season, sporting a tidy 1.98 goals against average and an impressive .937 save percentage against the Blue and White.
Eric Stall has three assists against the Buds thus far, with former Maple Leaf Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Skinner and former Maple Leafs defenseman Jay Harrison all notching one goal apiece against the Buds.
With Skinner and Pitkanen out, the Hurricanes will be hard-pressed to score tonight, that is unless Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer puts in another poor effort, as witnessed on Tuesday night when Reims gave up three goals on eight shots against the Florida Panthers.
Look for the Maple Leafs to play a more physical game, use their speed along the boards and look for the ever-important first goal against the Canes. The Buds are an impressive 11-1-0 when leading after the first period, a paltry 2-7-2 when trailing after one period.
The Christmas break almost always marks the start of the playoff push for most NHL teams. Make no mistake about it, with the standings so close and with so many teams looking to make gains, it is officially crunch time for the Blue and White.
Let’s hope the Leafs do not allow two points to slip away, if they do, their playoff hopes might just slip away with the loss.
Prediction: 3-1 Maple Leafs
Until next time,