TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The Leafs and Lightning held optional skates ahead of tonight's game at Scotiabank Arena.
With Brayden Point returning from off-season hip surgery, Lightning coach Jon Cooper is loading up his top line. It will be Point in between Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov tonight in Toronto. All three eclipsed 40 goals and 90 points last season while playing only sparingly together at even strength.
"It'll be interesting to see how they are," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "They're good players. Both guys can really shoot it. I'm not sure there's enough puck to go around. We can find out."
"Oh my God," said Cooper when informed of Babcock's comment. "Well, what's he saying about (John) Tavares (and Mitch) Marner? Let’s go through their team. So, I don't know. They should just throw eight pucks on the ice and see who goes for them. There’ll be a lot of skill out there tonight and isn’t that what we all love to watch? So, I appreciate the comment, but right back at him."
One thing everyone agrees on is that the return of Point is a huge boost for a Lightning team that has stumbled to a 1-1-1 record.
"He just competes," observed Auston Matthews. "He's really smart, his hockey IQ is really good, and he just goes out there and gets it done. He can shoot the puck, kind of just does it all. He's good in front of the net, I mean, just an all-around player. He does everything right."
"He's one of the best players in this league," said Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. "Great two-way player, scoots around the ice effortlessly. He's got a great shot, great vision on the ice. Obviously, had some great chemistry last year with Kuch and Stammer. Really looking forward to seeing those guys out there tonight."
The Lightning were outshot 27-2 over the final two periods on Sunday night against the Hurricanes leading to some harsh words from Stamkos, who told reporters in Raleigh that his group was "totally outclassed ... unless we change things it’s going to be a really, really, really long year."
Why'd he call out the team so early in the season?
"That wasn’t the intention," he insisted on Thursday. "We know what we have to do in this room, sometimes we just forget to do it, because we're going back to the bad habits of trying to win skilled games ... We've had some bad habits in our game for a while and sometimes you get away with them just because of how good of a team you are, but if you watch that game the other night we didn’t have a shot pretty much for two periods, because we're turning pucks over, we're not winning battles."
What did the coach think of the captain's analysis?
"Well, it was obvious, you watched us play," said Cooper. "Steven's not pointing fingers. He includes himself in that, so you got to love the passion."
Cooper described his team as playing "tentative" against the Hurricanes and it certainly feels like the weight of last year's shocking playoff sweep is still on the shoulders of the core players.
"I would be lying if I [said I] didn’t think there’s a burden being carried over," admitted Cooper, "but as we have talked to the players about, you can’t change last year. We're defending nothing, so let's go and attack."
Stamkos said this trip to his hometown – the third of six straight on the road – is just what the doctor ordered.
"After you have a tough game like that, to come on the road and play a real good team like Toronto, that's usually a best-case scenario," Stamkos said, "because you know you have to play a much better game if you want to make it a game."
The Lightning, who have dropped two in a row, didn't lose three straight all of last season.
While it may seem early to get so worked up about results, Babcock is quick to note that a team's identity needs to be established during the regular season. The tone must be set.
"When you win it's because your leadership group decides it's time to do it right over a period of time," Babcock said. "In the end, you're not just going to turn that switch at playoff time; it's just not going to happen. If you're not used to playing right, you're not going to play right and you're going to be disappointed. It's great to have high octane and I think it's a lot of fun – I think I remember saying this a lot last year – it's fun to watch. Fun to watch, but you're gone in a hurry. Maybe be less fun to watch, win more often and stay around longer."
And so tonight's game is an early-season measuring-stick moment for the young Leafs.
"It's a big opportunity for you, and you get to find out about your players," said Babcock. "All 12 forwards and all six D, your goaltender — you find out about everything ... There's nowhere to hide. It’s real good teams playing."
After four games last year, Tavares had six goals en route to a career-high 47. This year, he's still searching for his first goal through four outings. He was actually held without a shot on Monday against the Blues, just the second time he's been held without a shot as a Leaf.
Having failed to hit the scoresheet in consecutive games, Tavares was asked about his current mindset.
"Continuing to find another level," he said, "keep getting better and certainly continue to find ways to get more opportunities, get more pucks on net, continue to get to the middle of the ice, that's where the goals are scored."
Tavares, 29, says earlier in his career he may have let frustration set in, but he's now better at staying the course. Although even he wasn't sure how a prolonged drought may impact his psyche.
"I don't know," he admitted.
Tavares was the model of consistency last season never going more than two games without a point. This season, Tavares and Mitch Marner are adapting to a new left winger as the right-shooting Kasperi Kapanen flips sides to fill the void created by an injury to Zach Hyman (knee, expected back in November).
"Their game was better than I thought when I watched it on video," said Babcock of the line. "They had way more play around the net, we just never got it to the net enough and they didn't bang any in. Obviously, for guys that like to score, they feel that's the measure. I thought Kappy had a stronger game. He was on the puck, on the forecheck, did a good job for us physically. We retrieved pucks off lost faceoffs. I thought he did a good job. We've just got to keep everybody going."
To snap the drought, Tavares will need to find a way to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy. He has scored just once against the Lightning goalie in 11 career games and that lone goal came in their first encounter.
When the Leafs came off the ice from their first morning skate of the season, each player found an iPad in their stall with a sticker featuring their number.
"We've had it every year at playoffs and we didn't know how much they'd use them," Babcock explained. "When we started using them at playoff time on a regular basis, we basically figured we'd try it out and see what happens. A lot of guys – you can come in early, go through your stuff, there's always comments on stuff and you can find your game to game. A lot of the sports that have set plays all the time; I think there's more process for that. We always say to our guys, you can't make a mistake on a set play. You've got to know; you've got to be detailed in that. It's just following the nuances of your shift and your game and seeing what you're doing that's important."
Projected Leafs lineup for tonight's game:
Projected Lightning lineup for tonight's game: