TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday.
Mitch Marner underwent an MRI today, but there's still no word on how long the ankle injury sustained in Saturday's game will keep him out.
"I texted him a bunch of times and he said it was a little stiff," said coach Mike Babcock. "I haven't talked to anybody since. Obviously, our medical team will have a better feel than me once they get information on the MRI and then go from there."
Any sense of whether it will be days or weeks?
"I have no idea," Babcock said. "I don't know what the scoop is on Mitch at all so I'm not going to pretend I do."
Tonight is the first time the Leafs have played without Marner since February 2017 when he sat out five games with a shoulder injury in his rookie season.
In which ways will the Leafs miss the dynamic right winger?
"Lots of ways," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "He's on the power play, he's on the penalty kill, he's a big part of that line, obviously, so if you look at the depth chart in all areas of the game he's up there. It is what it is. It's unfortunate. We got guys that have to accept more responsibility and they're willing to do that, so it’s important we just take care of business and just deal with it."
Prior to the injury, Marner was leading all Leafs forwards in ice time (20:22 per game) while playing on the top power play and penalty kill units.
"The injuries will help us improve our team," Babcock insisted. "What I mean by that, guys are playing a lot more in a lot more situations than they would. Guys get opportunity and when you make good on it you earn confidence and you get to be a better player."
The Leafs went 3-2-2 with captain John Tavares out with a broken finger earlier this season and only recently seemed to regain some momentum.
"We've had guys gone all year so next man up," Babcock said, "let's get at’er and find a way to win."
One player who seems to be in line for more responsibility is Kasperi Kapanen, who replaced Marner on the right side of Trevor Moore and Tavares last night.
"He's one of the best skaters I've seen," said Rielly, "and when he's able to use his speed and drive the play that way it can make a big difference and it creates room for his linemates so when you watch him do that it really has a big impact on the game and I'd expect more of the same out of him."
"He was good," Tavares said last night. "Certainly, there's some understanding of each other's game and we picked up pretty good."
Kapanen started the season with Tavares and Marner, but struggled to make an impact (two assists in seven games) while playing on his off side for the first time in the NHL. The speedy Finn has looked more comfortable and confident since shifting back to a third line right wing role.
"The big thing is he's been playing in the right spot," Babcock noted. "You get everybody in your line-up, you get everybody in the right spot they probably perform better. I think everyone perceives you play with Tavares or (Auston Matthews) then it's going to be better and you're going to score more, well, he's actually proved that's not the case."
When the Leafs visited Chicago last season (Oct. 7, 2018) Matthews and Patrick Kane put on a show. Both scored twice and exchanged Hulk Hogan celebrations by putting their hand to their ear.
"It was a blast," Matthews recalled. "I looked up to him as a kid, one of my favourite players to watch, still one of my favourite players to watch … it's a night I'll always remember."
"Kane and him are both in the US program," said Babcock, "and he'll be wanting to be the best US guy on the ice tonight, I'll guarantee you that."
What does Matthews admire about Kane?
"It just seems like every year he just gets better and better," the 22-year-old said. "You know, no matter how the team's playing, no matter who he's playing with, he just makes guys around him better, he always produces … just fun to watch."
The schedule has finally dealt Toronto's back-up goalie, Michael Hutchinson, a favourable hand. Yes, the Leafs are playing on consecutive nights with travel, but so are the struggling Blackhawks, who lost a shootout in Pittsburgh on Saturday. And Hutchinson has a track record of success against the Blackhawks with a 4-1-1 record and .961 save percentage.
"It's a fun building to play in, you know, right from the national anthem, it kind of gets you a little fired up and ready to go," Hutchinson said. "It's a team I've had success against in the past and I think it just comes from them having such good players and it really makes you focus in and you know you’re going to get a lot of shots, you’re going to get some good scoring chances and those are the fun games to play in.
"My first NHL shutout was in Chicago so that was definitely a really special moment ... it's definitely one of my favourite rinks."
It's been 15 days since Hutchinson lost his last start in Montreal on Oct. 26 making this his longest stretch between game action this season.
"Yeah, it's been a little while," he acknowledged, "but that's one of the challenges of being a back-up goalie is finding success in between starts and not getting away from your game in practice, because practice is a lot different than a game. You give these guys a couple extra seconds and more open space in practice they're putting it off the post and in every single time, which in a game isn't always the case. So pick little things to work on in my game over the last few days and I’m looking forward to getting back in there."
Hutchinson is 0-3-1 on the season with an .885 save percentage.
"As teammates, we got to do a better job for him at times," said Rielly, "and it's important that we come out and we're prepared for that tonight. I think he's played really well, I think he's had a great attitude and it's time for us to play a little better in front of him."