The San Jose Sharks (4-5-1) hit the midway point of their Eastern road trip tonight with a stop in Toronto to face the Maple Leafs (5-4-2), but tonight’s game is about so much more than the two points on the line; it’s about the grand, much anticipated return of legendary former Leaf, Patrick Marleau.
Marleau’s illustrious tenure with the Maple Leafs from 2017 to 2019 is remembered by many people (all East Coasters for some reason) as the best of the 40-year-old’s career. He led Toronto to the postseason every year of his time there and posted 84 points in the process. There’s no word on whether Toronto is planning to retire his jersey prior to puck drop, but one can only assume.
Alright, I’ll stop now.
Marleau’s return to the Sharks has coincided with the team’s first tastes of success in 2019-20, having won four of their last six games. Last night, San Jose rode a pair of Evander Kane power play goals and 35 saves from Aaron Dell to a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
As concerning as the team’s 0-4 start was, the Sharks are looking a whole lot better and seem to be getting back to what’s made them successful in the past. San Jose’s power play unit currently holds a success rate of 25.7 percent, putting them eighth in the NHL. That might not seem like a huge deal, but considering how long it took for their unit to get going last season, that could make a big difference tonight.
Meanwhile the Leafs have hit a road bump of their own recently, having lost three of their last four games. But even at Toronto’s worst, their stars continue to shine, with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Morgan Reilly already having hit double digits in points.
The key to the Leafs’ success has been their well-rounded offensive attack. Toronto has 14 players with at least four points, 10 of which are above the seven-point threshold. One of those players is 25 year-old rookie Ilya “Soup” Mikheyev, who’s worked his way from Avangard Omsk of the KHL onto the Leafs’ second line alongside Marner and off-season pickup Alexander Kerfoot.
Kerfoot arrived in Toronto as part of a major summer trade with the Colorado Avalanche, as the Leafs sent the much beloved Nazem Kadri and defensive prospect Calle Rosen in exchange for Kerfoot and high flying blueliner Tyson Barrie. Toronto made a number of moves during the off-season in an attempt to upgrade their defense, and the results were questionable to say the least. In July, the Leafs moved Nikita Zaitzev and Connor Brown to the provincial rival Ottawa Senators in exchange for Ben Harpur and not-so analytical darling Cody Ceci.
One Leaf the Sharks won’t have to worry about tonight is captain John Tavares, who’s currently out with a broken finger sustained in a game against the Washington Capitals. The injury bug hasn’t been kind to Toronto early on, with key players Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott both out long term.
Can the Sharks keep up the pace?
To say speed isn’t a friend to the Sharks isn’t exactly a hot take, and the Leafs are the poster children of hockey’s high octane new era. If Pete DeBoer’s crew tries to match Toronto’s quick game, they’ll find themselves on the losing end of the score. What the Sharks will want to do is control the pace of play as much as possible and force the Leafs to take some risks in order to open the game up. When Toronto starts to get desperate for offense the holes in their defense are on full display, and exploiting panicking teams is something the slow and steady Sharks use to their advantage on a regular basis.
Can Jones handle Matthews & Co.?
Once again, it hasn’t been a banner start for goaltender Martin Jones, who owns a save percentage of .894 through seven games. When it comes to handling a team stacked full of offensive talent, the key for Jones will be to play a little farther back in his crease and let his structured play do the work. Juggernauts like the Leafs feast on goaltenders who get caught swimming in their net or over committing on a passing play, so if Jones gives himself a little more time to react by staying a little deeper in the blue paint, he’ll have a much easier night.
Are Pete DeBoer and Mike Babcock coaching for their jobs?
The Sharks and Leafs share one similarity in the fact that they’ve both underachieved so far this year, albeit in very different ways. There have already been some loud suggestions that a coaching change might be in order for both teams, and while the odds of that happening are pretty slim, if the direction doesn’t change for either soon, eventually they’ll reach a crossroads. Both Pete DeBoer and Mike Babcock need to look at this game as an opportunity to turn the ship around, and that’ll likely involve leaning a little more heavily on their top lines. So expect to see a coaching duel tonight, with star players taking a few extra shifts and a shorter leash on the depth role guys.
Bold Prediction: Patrick Marleau puts together a four-point night, including the winner in overtime for a final score of 7-6. Unless one team totally craps the bed, I just can’t see this game only lasting 60 minutes.