If the chatter on local sports stations are any indication, then the Leafs better pull out a win tonight or risk a potential explosion in fan outrage. Tonight, the Leafs will look to end their horrendous 8 game winless streak against the Nashville Predators, a team the Leafs rarely play against, and a game in which the Leafs “should” win. I say “should” with much caution, as the Predators are also exactly the type of team that the Leafs tend to lose against (I’ll get to why in a moment). On paper, and given the circumstances, one would expect the Leafs to end their losing skid tonight. In fact, they must end their losing skid tonight.
As per Paul Hendrick of Leafs TV, the Leafs will ice the exact same line-up tonight against Nashville that they did against Vancouver on Saturday night. That means that Nazem Kadri will get his second start of the season, as well as Keith Aulie. Both were admirable in their first appearance this season, and Kadri in particular made some nice plays. Hopefully both can carry that momentum into tonight’s game. The Leafs played rather decently against Vancouver on Saturday, however they continued their rather shocking habit of blowing leads (the Leafs blew a 2-0 first period lead to eventually lose the game 5-3). Wilson will need to somehow motivate these guys tonight and make it perfectly clear that this is a must win, and if they give up a goal, to not suddenly lose all confidence. A team that consistently blows multiple goal leads is a team that lacks serious confidence. I put blame for this partially on Ron Wilson, who, for the past three seasons, has failed to curb the endless trend of blowing leads.
The city itself feels like it could explode at any time. If you are in Toronto, you have no doubt heard all the sports radio stations jammed with angry callers, calling for the heads of everyone from Richard Peddie, Brian Burke, and Ron Wilson to the poor equipment managers. No one is to be spared, and if the brass at MLSE want to relieve the pressure, it must begin tonight.
However, this game stinks of the sort of game that is prime for the Leafs to lose. I don’t say this because I believe that the Nashville Predators are a superior team, but rather because of the circumstances surrounding this game itself. The Predators appear to be very similar to the Leafs in terms of goals for and goals against this year, as well as specialty team numbers (more on this later), and given that the Leafs will give everything they got tonight to not go 9 games winless, and the fact that they are playing at home should give you the impression that a win is imminent. But it is exactly these reasons that make me feel like the Leafs will lose this game. After all, the Predators feature several ex-Leafs (Sullivan and Wade Belak), and we all know how the Leafs tend to play against ex-Leafers (eg. Bryan McCabe is a superstar whenever he plays against the Leafs). That being said, Wade Belak currently holds the league lead in longest goalless streak at 121 games without a goal and, how befitting would it be for Belak to end that goalless streak against his old team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and force their winless streak to continue? You know just as well as I do that this could very well happen, and in fact, in true Leafs fashion, it’s almost destined to happen.
In terms of the match-up itself, the Panthers (7-5-3-0) come into Toronto (5-8-1-2) riding a current 2 game winning streak, with their last game coming on November 13th, when they pulled out a win against the Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks in a 4-3 shootout win. In the past ten games, the Predators sport a record of 4-5-1-0, and, when compared to Toronto’s last 10 games (1-7-0-2), make them look like an elite force. The teams themselves don’t play each other very often, however in the last ten meetings, the Predators have won 6 games to the Leafs 4. The most recent match-up was January 18th, 2010, where the Leafs won 4-3 in Nashville.
The Leafs finally broke out of their scoring slump (somewhat) on Saturday night against Vancouver, and they will need to ensure they continue putting pucks in the net tonight instead of taking another night off by taking shots at the periphery, which of course, are never screened or blocked. Below is a period-by-period breakdown of the scoring for both the predators and the leafs:
As has often been the case for the Leafs this year, they tend to give up the most goals in the first period, and in contrast, the Predators score the majority of their goals in the first period. As was the case on Saturday night, the Leafs really need to ensure they come out incredibly strong and limit the Predators opportunities early on. In terms of the Leafs most successful period, the third period tends to be the Leafs’ most favourable, and in contrast, the third period is the worst for Nashville.
In terms of giving up the first goal, both teams tend to give up the first goal rather than scoring the first goal. Below is a visual depiction of the proportion of games in which each team scores, or is scored on first.
Each team’s respective winning percentages when scoring first, or being scored on first, is given below.
As can be seen above, the Leafs and Predators both have a near 60% winning probability when scoring first, however the most startling distinction between these two is that, when the Leafs’ are scored on first, their winning percentage is hovering around 10%, whereas the Predators’ winning percentage hovers around 40%. To me, this indicates that the Leafs can not take too many chances with the Predators if the Leafs get the lead. This season, the Leafs have been absolutely garbage at holding onto leads, and they face a team tonight that is capable of getting back into a game even when they fall behind first. The Leafs have to stop being cocky, and when they get a lead, hold onto it and do not let up.
In terms of the Predators scoring threats this season, a graphic is provided below which depicts the Predators top four scoring threats. The Predators feature a rather balanced scoring act, as compared to the Leafs’ feeble “top line” scoring “threat”.
In the graphic above, one name sticks out that always tends to sting the Leafs — Steve Sullivan. Steve Sullivan, although suffering many health problems over the years, has still managed to be a consistent scoring threat since being waived from the Leafs in 1999. As is so often the case with the Leafs, ex-Leafers tend to love playing against their old team. It always seems like these ex-Leafers are great at poking their ex-team in the eye any chance they get. In the graphic below, I have outlined what I consider to be the Predators’ “Leaf Killers” and, sure enough, Steve Sullivan has an incredible scoring rate against the Leafs.
Expect to see Sullivan have a stellar night against the Leafs and, as mentioned before, perhaps Belak will break his 121 goalless streak. The Leafs will need to contain these players to have any chance tonight. Sergei Kostitsyn has always had relatively good games against the Leafs as a member of the Montreal Canadians, so expect to see him play strong tonight.
In terms of goaltenders, the Predators will ice Pekka Rinne to take on Giguere. Rinne has very limited experience playing the leafs, however Giguere has played against Nashville extensively, and has a winning record (see below).
Rinne holds a save percentage of 0.910 and a goals against average of 2.85, where as Giguere holds a save percentage of 0.899 and a goals against average of 2.62. Giguere will look to shake off the game winning goal scored against him by Mason Raymond last Saturday, where Giguere took a 45 foot weak shot between the legs. Expect Giguere to play strong tonight.
Finally, a comparison of both the Predators and Leafs specialty teams are provided below. Both teams overall power plays are comparable (a measly 11%), however the Leafs’ home power play is slightly stronger than the Predators’, albeit both are still pathetic.
Overall, both teams stack up quite similarly, however the Leafs “should” come out strong tonight to ensure they break this 8 game winless streak. That being said, I have a very sick feeling that tonight will be one of those games in which the opposition completely surprises the Leafs, ex-Leafers wreck havoc on their old team, and the end result will be a hail-storm of boos which will rain down on the Leafs and continue to drown Leafs Nation in tears.
Other Information: If you are wondering where to catch tonight’s game, see the “Where to Watch Games” section of this website.
Update [4:22PM]: Wade Belak will not be in tonight’s line-up for the Nashville Predators. Evidently, the gods do pity the Leafs.