Maple Leafs at Sharks Preview: Auston Matthews poised for breakout

Toronto brings high-powered offense to San Jose.

The Toronto Maple Leafs (4-3-0) roll into town for the first and only time this season on Thursday. The San Jose Sharks (2-7-0) are coming off a hotly-contested loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. Things looked close until the later half of the third period on Tuesday, when defensive breakdowns allowed Vegas to score two goals in just over a minute of play. Three unanswered goals in the third period won’t win many games. The Sharks fell 4-2, keeping the team’s longest winning streak of the season at one.

San Jose got geared up for the match against the Golden Knights and will have to avoid a Vegas hangover against the Maple Leafs. Toronto has not played since Monday, so the team is well-rested. If there’s good news for San Jose, it’s that Toronto has proven they can play down to the competition in this young season. One of the team’s losses came at the hands of the Arizona Coyotes.

Toronto is without starting goaltender Matt Murray, who is out for an undetermined amount of time with a groin injury. That leaves Erik Kallgren and Ilya Samsonov splitting duties. Kallgren and Samsonov have fewer than 100 NHL games played between the pair of them.

Of course, when a team has depth like Toronto, it’s easier to out-score goaltending troubles. Jonathan Tavares leads the team with 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists). Meanwhile, William Nylander leads all Maple Leafs with 4 goals. Oh yeah, and we forgot to mention (San Ramon native) Auston Matthews, who has just one goal this season after posting 60 goals in 73 games last season. If he’s going to start finding the back of the net, hopefully, it’s after he flies out of San Jose.

There’s also Michael Bunting, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, Rasmus Sandin and youngster Nicholas Robertson to contend with. That’s a tough match-up for a team like the Sharks, who have only broken the two-goal mark twice this season. Those also happen to be the team’s only wins of the season.

Putting “special” back in special teams

If San Jose is going to win, special teams will have to be on point. The power play is scoring at an abysmal 7.4 percent for the season. That’s 28th in the league as of Wednesday morning. What’s worse, the Sharks have scored exactly two power play goals and have allowed two shorthanded goals this season, meaning the power play hasn’t moved the needle at all.

The only reason the Sharks haven’t lost the special teams battle entirely is that the penalty kill is among the best in the league. The 96.2 percent penalty kill rate ranks third-best in the NHL.

Scoring a power play goal and maintaining that penalty kill would put San Jose in a good position to win Thursday night. The Maple Leafs are prime candidates to allow that to happen.

The Leafs’ power play is middling at 22.2 percent (16th in the league) and so is the penalty kill at 80.8 percent (14th in the league). That leaves a window open for the Sharks to score a much needed power play goal without getting too stressed out when down a skater.

Getting a “W” for Kappo

If the platoon in goal continues as scheduled, we’ll see Kappo Kahkonen get the start on Thursday. While Kahkonen has yet to secure a win this season, he performed much better in his last outing and has earned the right to try again.

Kahkonen stopped 35 of 37 pucks against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 22. The real problem for the Sharks in that game was not goaltending, but the lack of offensive firepower.

Now, it’s Kahkonen’s turn to show why the Sharks chose to keep him over Adin Hill. Kahkonen will face serious offensive firepower, and if there’s even a shot at winning this game, the team will have to rely on Kahkonen making the easy saves and a few hard ones, as well.

Timo’s late to the party

Timo Time has yet to strike this season. Nine games into the season and Meier hasn’t scored a goal. That’s not good news for someone who scored 35 goals last season and was nearly a point-per-game player with 76 points in 77 games. Plus, he’s in a contract year.

So far, Meier has notched two points and is a minus-6 player.

However, there are signs that Meier might be ready to arrive. Meier looked like a man on a mission during Tuesday’s game against Vegas. According to the stats, Meier peppered Hill with eight shots and was on ice for 21:10 minutes of the game. It seemed like Meier hit everything except for the back of the net.

In fact, in the last four games, Meier has tallied 21 shots on goal and only one point to show for it.

Bold Prediction: It’s time for Meier to make his grand entrance. If we keep saying it, maybe it will happen. Sooner or later, we’ll be right. Meier scores a pair of goals on Thursday, with Tomas Hertl assisting on both. The big guys start to heat up, and the Sharks break that two-goal mark only to fall 5-3 to the Maple Leafs.