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Carolina Hurricanes @ Toronto Maple Leafs preview - Plenty on the line in Toronto

Two teams with Stanley Cup aspirations will go head-to-head on Saturday as the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Carolina Hurricanes.

WhatCarolina Hurricanes @ Toronto Maple Leafs
WhereScotiabank Arena, Toronto
When7PM ET, Friday March 17
How to, TVAS, TSN4, BSSO

Two teams with Stanley Cup aspirations will go head-to-head on Saturday as the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Carolina Hurricanes. 

The Leafs (40-18-9) are second in the Atlantic Division and on course for a first round meeting with third placed Tampa Bay Lightning for a second consecutive season in the playoffs. 

Toronto are three points ahead of the Lightning in the battle for home ice advantage where they are 24-7-5. 

The Hurricanes (44-14-8) have a challenge to hold on to top spot in the Metropolitan Division with New Jersey Devils just two points behind them, though they do have a game in hand. 

With a road record of 20-6-6, Carolina are on course to remain first in the Metro and claim the division’s title.

Svechnikov blow

The Hurricanes’ chances suffered a major blow recently with the news that forward Andrei Svechnikov will undergo season-ending surgery on a knee injury. 

Svechnikov, 22, is tied for second on the Hurricanes for points (55) and is third for goals (23) over 64 games. 

Carolina average 3.30 goals per game (12th in the NHL), and without their All-Star will look to Martin Necas (61 points; 25 goals, 36 assists) and Sebastian Aho (55 points; 27 goals, 28 assists) to continue to lead their offence, and require recent acquisition Jesse Puljujärvi to show why he was a fourth overall pick by the Edmonton Oilers in 2016. 

With Max Pacioretty also on long-term injured reserve, the Hurricanes may also now need to rely heavily on their outstanding defence, which ranks second in the league allowing just 2.52 per game, and their ability score at opportune times to be able to deliver on their +750 odds of winning the Stanley Cup.

Challenge to keep out Leafs 

Carolina will certainly need to be at their best defensively to keep out a Leafs side who average 3.39 goals per game (eighth) and convert at 25.2% on their powerplay (third). 

Mitch Marner leads the Leafs with 86 points (24 goals, 62 assists) and all three of William Nylander, Auston Matthews and John Tavares have more than 30 goals. 

In comparison, all of Toronto's big four have more points than Carolina's leader Necas, with the latter trio also boasting a higher goals tally than Hurricanes' best Aho. 

The Hurricanes will be confident of keeping the Leafs' powerplay at bay, however, with their penalty-kill at a league second best of 84%. 

They will also fancy their chances on the man advantage with their powerplay at 21.2% (18th), up against a Toronto penalty kill which is an inconsistent 80.7% (13th).

Acciari making an impact 

The Leafs made several big moves ahead of the trade deadline, including bringing in centreman Noel Acciari as part of the Ryan O'Reilly deal and his impact has been immediate. 

With O'Reilly unfortunately out with a broken finger, Acciari has stepped up with three goals in 12 games, but more importantly has provided a level of depth down the middle and physicality from the fourth line not seen in Toronto for some time. 

The 31-year-old is inside the top 10 of all players for hits this season (209) and is averaging a solid 55.3% face-off winning percentage. 

His addition, along with the league’s top hitter Luke Schenn (265 hits) and the rugged Jake McCabe, has given the Leafs a new playoff ready look and makes them +900 to win the Stanley Cup which they haven’t managed for a record 55 years.

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Kochetkov in line to start 

Carolina’s 23-year-old netminder Pyotr Kochetkov has made a strong impression in his rookie season, going 11-5-5 with a .915 save percentage and 2.25 goals against average (GAA). 

Should the Canes stick to their goalie rotation between games, Kochetkov is in line to start against Toronto after Frederik Andersen began their most recent 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets. 

Andersen, a former Maple Leaf, started the only previous meeting between the two teams this season and was beaten by three of 21 shots as the Hurricanes were handed a 3-1 loss on home ice. 

Kochetkov was selected by the Hurricanes with the fifth pick in the second round of the 2019 NHL draft and is a contender to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.

Goalie dilemma for Leafs 

As the playoffs draw ever closer, the goaltending picture in Toronto remains unclear with Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov each missing recent time through injury and neither able to establish themselves as the bona fide number-one. 

Samsonov is arguably leading the race to start Game 1 with a consistent 23-8-2 record, .915 save percentage and 2.41 GAA. Murray, who won the Stanley Cup twice with Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017 has frustratingly been available much less, going 12-7-2 with a .903 save percentage and 2.92 GAA. 

General Manager Kyle Dubas punted on Murray and his experience to get Toronto over their playoff hoodoo in the off-season, but the continuation of injury issues which derailed his career following the back-to-back successes in Pittsburgh have led to some concern about whether he can hit those heights again. 

The final games will give him a chance to prove that he can, and who gets the start in a playoff type audition against the Hurricanes will certainly be interesting.

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