The Blue Jackets head to Toronto on Friday for the final leg of their four game road trip, and they’ll face a Maple Leafs team in a state of transition. The Leafs are coming off a 6-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in their first game under interim head coach Peter Horachek, following the dismissal of Randy Carlyle on Tuesday.
GM Dave Nonis said the Maple Leafs were trending in the wrong direction. After going 10-1-1 from Nov. 20-Dec. 16 to gain a foot-hold in the playoff picture, the Leafs pulled an about-face and have lost eight of their last 10, including the first game of the post-Carlyle era. Toronto gave up six goals to the Capitals on home ice after surrendering five in Winnipeg in their previous game.
The firing of a head coach usually brings more scrutiny on the top players, but Phil Kessel is in the midst of another excellent season offensively with 18 goals and 41 points through 41 games. Kessel’s traditional line mates are also having decent offensive campaigns, with Tyler Bozak boasting 30 points and James van Riemsdyk with 37. Yet those haven’t been Kessel’s line mates of late, with a series of shuffles between both Carlyle and Horachek placing Kessel with several different untis and van Riemsdyk moving around as well.
The Leafs have scored 132 goals, second-most in the NHL, but they have surrendered 128, tied for fourth-most. They’ve gotten a strong overall season from defenseman Cody Franson (6-19-25) and veteran addition Stephane Robidas is a solid plus-12 on a team with the fourth-worst Corsi For (CF%) percentage in the NHL.
The Leafs are one point out of a wild-card spot and will look to turn things around against Columbus. Not helping matters is that Joffrey Lupul is once again out of the lineup. The talented yet oft-injured scorer has been out since New Year's Eve with a lower body injury and is expected to miss a couple more weeks. He was a late scratch earlier this season when the Leafs and Jackets met at Nationwide Arena.
The Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets met on Halloween in what was truly a fright night for the Jackets. The Leafs won the contest 4-1, Columbus’ fourth straight loss in a nine-game losing streak that stretched until mid-November. The Leafs got scoring from Kessel, David Clarkson, Kadri, and Winnik against Curtis McElhinney and an injury-ravaged Blue Jackets lineup. The bright spot on the night was Cam Atkinson’s power play goal, with Ryan Johansen registering an assist to extend his season-opening points streak to 10 games. Otherwise, the Jackets were quiet for much of the night.
A mid-season coaching change means more will be expected of a team’s top players, but also its leadership structure. Captain Dion Phaneuf falls into both categories for Toronto. The hard-hitting and hard-shooting defenseman has, like Kessel, faced a lot of criticism in Toronto as the Leafs have strived for more consistency. Phaneuf's defensive game hasn’t compensated for that, with a 44.4 CF% this season and an average Corsi of 42.33 over the last three years. Phaneuf is a physical force with a heavy shot and is featured prominently in all aspects of Toronto’s game. They’ve needed more from him, and at this point in their season, he’s one of the players expected to step up and lead.
Ryan Johansen is back to his goal-scoring ways. After an 11-game scoring drought during December (through which the Jackets were still 9-1-1), Johansen has goals in four straight games. Even when Johansen wasn’t finding twine, he was still adding to the offense. Johansen’s goal streak is at four games, but his overall points streak is at eight games (4-5-9). It’s Johansen’s second longest streak of the season, his other a 10-game point streak that kicked off the regular season. He’s been a strong top center, with a face-off winning percentage of 59.2 in his last six games. Johansen has the hot hand and his line with Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell is rolling.
Top Line vs. Top Line
What is Peter Horachek’s top line? In his Maple Leafs coaching debut, he decided to go with Winnik-Bozak-Kessel. That can certainly change, with van Riemsdyk and Kadri available to shuffle to the top, but that top unit did record 13 shots against Washington, including a goal and game-high six shots for Winnik. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, seem pretty set with their top line. The Foligno-Johansen-Hartnell unit has been together for the past two games and has clicked, with the trio combining for two goals and 10 assists in the games in Colorado and Dallas. The top guys have also helped the new wave of offense from the blue line, with Jackets defensemen scoring five goals in the last three games and either Foligno, Johansen, or Hartnell factoring in on four of them.