Although every game the Toronto Maple Leafs play is important, there’s just something quite special about meeting two of the teams who seem to be the biggest obstacles to the team’s potential Stanley Cup run. That’s what will happen over the next two days when the Maple Leafs meet the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight and tomorrow the Florida Panthers.
There’s no doubt that the Atlantic Division is stacked. The two Florida teams and the ever-difficult Boston Bruins stand in the Maple Leafs’ way to the dream of postseason success. How the team plays this week is a great litmus test for where they stand in the division’s pecking order.
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In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll look at some of the news from the team as it enters play this week. The Maple Leafs beat the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday in the first game of their road trip, and they have three games remaining. After Tuesday’s back-to-back, they travel to Dallas to play the Stars on Thursday.
Item One: William Nylander Is Ill and Missed Practice
William Nylander is dealing with some sort of an illness that forced him to miss Sunday’s practice. We really don’t know much more than that; however, there’s a chance that Nylander will play today. Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe noted that it would depend upon how Nylander feels this morning. Thus far, I’ve seen no updates about his status.
Nylander has scored seven goals and added 10 assists (for 17 points) in his last 17 games. Over his past three games, he’s scored two goals and added three assists. This season, he’s put together his career-best scoring of 64 points in 68 games.
With Nylander away from yesterday’s practice, Nick Abruzzese was given the third-line role as the left-winger. Abruzzese made his NHL debut against the Flyers and, according to coach Keefe, made a number of smart plays with the puck. Keefe did note that it was a tough game for the youngster because the Flyers pushed the Maple Leafs on their heels for most of the first two periods. The organization has high hopes for the rookie from Harvard University.
Item Two: Jack Campbell Gets His Second-Straight Start
In no surprise after his solid game against the Flyers, Jack Campbell will start in net tonight against the Lightning. Campbell came back after 10 games on the shelf with rib injuries and looked as athletic as he did at the beginning of the season. He held his team in the game until the Maple Leafs’ offense kicked into gear.
On Saturday, Campbell stopped 29 of the 32 shots he faced to take the win. The 30-year-old former backup goalie’s record improved to 25-9-4, with a goals-against-average of 2.66, and a save percentage of .914. Tonight’s game will be his 42nd of the season.
Item Three: Will Jake Muzzin Play on This Road Trip?
There was really good news that Jake Muzzin’s concussion is getting better and that he’s getting close to playing. In fact, he’s traveling with the team and is expected to see the ice sometime during the Maple Leafs’ current road trip. However, the report is that he won’t return to the team’s active lineup for tonight’s game against the Lightning.
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It will be good to see Muzzin return, which brings a good problem for the coaching staff. Even with Rasmus Sandin out with an injury, the once-maligned team defense has looked good with the two trade deadline additions of Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano. It’s as strong a defensive group as the team has had since I’ve been covering them over the past three seasons.
Muzzin has been sidelined since February 21 with this concussion. Fortunately, and I suspect the team will be very careful with his health, he engaged in a full practice on Sunday. That means he’s close to returning to the active roster. On the season, Muzzin has totalled 12 points, 53 blocks, and 84 hits in 41 games.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
After the game, Campbell spoke to the media and it was obvious that he was pleased to be back playing. Campbell shared that he “definitely felt like (himself), just having fun and competing and playing my game.”
Campbell assessed his game against the Flyers and reported that “I liked my game and I’m going to keep building from it. Just being healthy is huge. It definitely was nice to hit a reset button, work on some details and work hard in the gym.”
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I’m constantly reminded of how physical NHL hockey is as a game and how much injuries play a part in any team’s success or failure. No one can convince me that John Tavares’ concussion during the first game of the 2021 postseason wasn’t the key reason the Maple Leafs lost to the Montreal Canadiens.