VANCOUVER -- On a night with no shortage of storylines, it might be easy to overlook Nikolai Kulemin returning from a fractured foot. But the Toronto Maple Leafs could use him against the Vancouver Canucks.
It may have gotten lost amid plans for the retirement of Pavel Bure's No. 10, the contract extension Canucks forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin signed Friday, the return of Mason Raymond to Vancouver, or the similarities between the Maple Leafs goaltending tandem and what the Canucks went through the past two seasons. But with forward Carter Ashton starting a two-game suspension for a hit from behind on Derek Smith of the Calgary Flames on Wednesday, Kulemin is the best option to take his place in a matchup with the Canucks' loaded top line of the Sedin twins with Ryan Kesler.
Assuming Kulemin plays, that is.
The Russian forward, who has missed 12 games since being hit with a shot, said he was ready after practice Friday. But coach Randy Carlyle wasn't tipping his roster hand, noting Kulemin was lagging behind in a late skating drill Friday afternoon.
"I don't know if he's 110 percent ready to go but we are hoping that he comes clean and has no more issues after the skate, because obviously coming off a broken bone there has lingering effects that do take place and he's been pretty sore for a while," Carlyle said, adding Kulemin was going to be reassessed later in the day.
Carlyle's other options are spare forward Troy Bodie, who has played in half of Toronto's games so far this season, or dressing John-Michael Liles as a seventh defenseman. The fact neither team held a pregame skate Saturday before a rare 4 p.m. local time start makes the Maple Leafs' lineup more of a guessing game.
That includes the goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier, who have been leaned on heavily as the Maple Leafs won despite being outshot 86-48 in the first two games of this road trip through Western Canada. Carlyle almost never announces his starter, but there were subtle hints it might be Reimer, who stopped 43 in a 4-0 shutout of the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday before watching Bernier stop 41 in a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames on Thursday.
Whoever plays goal, the defense needs to tighten up for Toronto to win its first game in Vancouver in almost a decade; the last Maple Leafs road win against the Canucks was in late November 2003, and they have been outscored 44-21 in the 10 meetings here since.
"Our goaltenders have masked some issues we've experienced on the ice the past two games," Carlyle said.
Despite taking Kesler off the top line and moving Alexandre Burrows back there for the third period of a 2-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday, Vancouver is expected to start with its top line loaded up again against Toronto. The Canucks' only expected change is to drop center Jeremy Welsh from the third to a fourth line that barely plays, with Darren Archibald moving up on the wing and Brad Richardson moving over into the middle of the third line.
Here are the projected lineups for Vancouver and Toronto:
James van Riemsdyk – Nazem Kadri – Phil Kessel
Mason Raymond – Dave Bolland – David Clarkson
Nikolai Kulemin – Jay McClement – Joffrey Lupul
Frazer McLaren – Trevor Smith – Colton Orr
Cody Franson – Morgan Rielly
Dion Phaneuf – Carl Gunnarsson
Paul Ranger – Jake Gardiner
Scratched: Troy Bodie, John-Michael Liles, Carter Ashton (suspended)
Injured: Mark Fraser (knee), Tyler Bozak (lower body)
Daniel Sedin – Henrik Sedin – Ryan Kesler
Chris Higgins – Mike Santorelli – Alexandre Burrows
Darren Archibald – Brad Richardson – Zack Kassian
Tom Sestito – Jeremy Welsh – Yannick Weber
Alexander Edler – Jason Garrison
Dan Hamhuis – Christopher Tanev ?????????
Ryan Stanton – Kevin Bieksa
Scratched: Andrew Alberts
Injured: Jordan Schroeder (foot), Jannik Hansen (upper body), Dale Weise (lower body), David Booth (undisclosed)