Predators, Leafs face off looking for second-half surge

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The Toronto Maple Leafs blazed a trail up the NHL standings during a sizzling 9-0-1 stretch before losing five of their last six games (1-3-2) heading into the All-Star break.

After falling four points out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, the Maple Leafs aim to cut into that deficit on Monday when they visit the Nashville Predators.

Auston Matthews sat out the All-Star Game due to an ailing wrist, however he is expected to be back in the lineup against the Predators. Matthews is tied for second in the NHL with 34 goals this season and is on pace to reach 57 tallies, which would break the franchise record of 54 set by Rick Vaive (1981-82).

“You want to compete out there and participate,” the 22-year-old Matthews said of electing to bow out of the All-Star Game. “But in the grand scheme of things, the important games are the ones in the regular season.

“Getting a couple of extra days to heal and rest (the injury) is important. This is an important part of the season and that time is valuable to get healthy and move on.”

While Toronto hasn’t had much of an issue scoring goals (NHL fourth-best 3.57 per game), it has been rather generous in its own end. The Maple Leafs have surrendered 3.29 goals per game, which ranks as the fifth most in the league.

“We’ve been giving up a lot. We haven’t been playing a (good) defensive game,” said Mitch Marner, who leads the team with 34 assists.

“We’re cheating for offense. We’re doing things wrong and it’s really hurting us.”

Toronto was shut out in both encounters against Nashville last season, with Pekka Rinne making 18 saves in the Predators’ 4-0 win on Jan. 7 and 22 stops in a 3-0 victory on March 19. The former Vezina Trophy recipient has blanked the Maple Leafs on three occasions and sports a 5-4-2 record with a 2.22 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 12 career encounters.

Rinne, however, has struggled to find his form since posting a 7-0-2 record in October, going 9-10-1 in his past 20 appearances.

Nashville dropped seven of 10 games since the Christmas break before skating to a 2-1 victory against Buffalo on Jan. 18. Rinne made 30 saves and Craig Smith scored the go-ahead power-play goal with 6:29 remaining in the third period in the win.

Captain Roman Josi set up Ryan Johansen’s goal in the second period vs. the Sabres to boost his team-leading totals in assists (34) and points (48).

While Josi admittedly enjoyed himself in the All-Star Game, the Swiss star was quick to turn his attention toward the rest of the season.

“We need to make a push (for the playoffs) here,” Josi said on Saturday. “We should come back really motivated, and I’m really excited. We have one day of practice, and then we get right back at it. I’m excited, and I have a lot of confidence in our group that we’re going to make a push.”

The Predators reside in the cellar of the Central Division, although they are just six points behind the Vegas Golden Knights for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

–Field Level Media

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