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The Toronto Maple Leafs hope to maintain or increase their lead over Tampa Bay for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, as they take on the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh on Saturday. The Leafs win over Florida and the Lightning’s loss to Ottawa on Thursday increased the gap to five points, with Toronto having two games in hand on Tampa.
The Lightning face the presumptive President’s Trophy-winning Boston Bruins on Saturday afternoon, while the Leafs take on the Canes for the second time in eight days.
Toronto held an optional skate in Raleigh, NC on Saturday morning, and Ryan O’Reilly participated. The recently acquired center suffered a broken finger in Vancouver on March 4 and the diagnosis was that he would be out four weeks, which would give him four or five games to get back up to speed before the start of the playoffs.
It remains a question of how O’Reilly will be utilized by head coach Sheldon Keefe in the postseason. The greatest value would be playing up the middle based on his faceoff and defensive abilities, which is where he was positioned following the trade from St. Louis last month, but that coincided with team captain John Tavares being moved to the wing to play with O’Reilly and Mitch Marner.
Keefe might stay with that alignment to give Toronto a different look and more options, but keeping Tavares at center on the second line and playing O’Reilly at 3C lengthens the Leafs lineup and gives them a matchup advantage against Tampa up the middle with Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Nick Paul, potentially freeing up Tavares or Auston Matthews from being checked by Cirelli.
Matt Murray, who made 33 saves in his second straight victory on Thursday, will get the start for Toronto. Pyotr Kochetkov (11-6-5, 2.38 GAA, .909 save %) is expected to make his first start since allowing five goals on 24 shots in a 5-2 loss to the Leafs on St. Patrick’s Day.
Erik Gustafsson (for personal reasons) is not with the club, but Keefe did not indicate whether he will go with the 11/7 alignment he used against the Panthers or the traditional 12/6.