Monster-less Leafs set to invade Columbus
MAPLE LEAFS (7-12-7) at BLUE JACKETS (13-9-5)
Last 10 --
Toronto 4-4-2; Columbus 4-3-3.
Season series --
This will be the only meeting between Columbus and Toronto. The Jackets took their sole matchup a season ago, a 4-3 shootout win at the Air Canada Centre on Feb. 19.
Big story --
Without netminder Jonas Gustavsson, the Leafs will look to continue inching towards the East's top eight as they visit the struggling Blue Jackets. Joey MacDonald stopped all 18 shots he faced in Montreal on Tuesday.
Maple Leafs --
After a rough start to the season that saw Toronto lose its first eight games, the Leafs have slowly begun crawling out of a hole that appeared too deep just a month ago. As the season enters its third month, Toronto is just seven points out of the East's top eight and has plenty of time to jump into the logjam around the final spot. The Leafs have gotten an offensive boost out of Phil Kessel, who has 13 points in 14 games since making his debut, and Niklas Hagman, whose six points in his last six games have reportedly had Leafs GM Brian Burke's phone buzzing with teams inquiring about the winger's availability.
There is cause for concern, however. After stopping all eight shots he faced in the first period against Montreal Wednesday, Gustavsson left the game with a recurrence of heart problems that affected him in training camp. While Gustavsson, who has backstopped the Leafs through most of their resurgence, has reportedly told friends he is feeling fine, the netminder is already back in Toronto. The Leafs will finish their current road swing without him, with MacDonald getting the call Thursday.
Blue Jackets --
Things haven't been quite as positive in Ohio. Since winning five of six games in early November, the Jackets have struggled, winning just once in their last seven. Perhaps not surprisingly, the recent slide has coincided with a rough stretch for goalie Steve Mason
. A year after leading Columbus to its first ever playoff berth, the Calder Trophy winner has only won two of his last eight starts while compiling a 3.50 goals against average.
While the blame surely can't all rest on Mason's shoulders, the Jackets have not lacked for offense. Winger Kristian Huselius
has tallied 12 points over the last 10 games, while R.J. Umberger
has six points in his last two, including a hat trick Monday against St. Louis. If Mason can regain the form he displayed a year ago, the Jackets could prove themselves to be a steady force in the West.
Who's hot --
While Kessel has been the offensive newsmaker, center Matt Stajan has quietly tallied five goals and five assists in his last 10 games for Toronto. In Columbus, center Antoine Vermette
and defenseman Kris Russell
have combined for four goals and three assists over the last two games.
Injury report -- Marc Methot
is doubtful for Columbus with an upper-body injury, while Rostislav Klesla
will miss the next 4-6 weeks with a torn groin. In addition to missing Gustavsson, Toronto will be without defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who will be out for the next six weeks with a hyperextended elbow.
Stat pack --
If anyone dares to question Gustavsson's value, they need just look at the numbers. The Leafs have grabbed at least one point in 11 of the last 14 appearances for the Monster, who is 6-5-5 overall in his first NHL campaign. When Gustavsson doesn't take the ice, Toronto is 1-7-2.
Puck drop --
These are two teams that appear to be going in opposite directions, but the Leafs are still behind several teams in the East playoff race, while Columbus would be in if the regular season ended today. Historically, Toronto has had a stiff advantage between these two, having lost only once to Columbus in regulation and holding a 4-0-2 mark with one tie overall.
But this will be the Leafs' first visit to Ohio in more than three years, and Columbus boasts a far different team. Despite Columbus' recent slide, the Monster-less Leafs could be in for a challenge.