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NHL: Calgary Flames @ Toronto Maple Leafs preview

Canadian rivals Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames meet for the first time this season at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday.

The Leafs (20/33 to be victorious) head into the game high in confidence after going 8-0-2 in their last ten games. 

Much like their overall season, the Flames (29/20 to win) have blown hot and cold in their last 10 going 5-4-1.    

Overall Toronto are 17-5-6 and second in the Atlantic Division while Calgary are 13-11-3 and fifth in the Pacific Division.

Vladar offering Markstrom support    

Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom was blunt in the assessment of his performance following a 2-1 defeat to the Montreal Canadiens on 2nd December saying "I just suck at hockey right now." 

After that, the usually ever-reliable Swede was taken out of the firing line by coach Darryl Sutter and back-up Dan Vladar won three in a row. 

Markstrom returned in Calgary's most recent game, a 3-1 defeat to the Columbus Blue Jackets and looked far more like himself posting a .923 save-percentage.   

In 18 games this season, 32-year-old Markstrom is 8-7-2 with a .891 save-percentage and 2.93 goals-against-average, each below his career average of .911 and 2.70 respectively in near 400 regular season games.   

Vladar, 25, in his second season with the Flames, has a .912 save-percentage and 2.59 GAA in 10 games (5-4-1).   

It's unclear who will get the nod against the Leafs, but whoever does will have all eyes on them as the story between the pipes continues to develop in Calgary.   

Leafs goalies proving doubters wrong

he Maple Leafs also have a tale to tell in goal where two much maligned off-season acquisitions, Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov have proved their doubters wrong in the early going.    

Murray, 28, and Samsonov, 25, replaced Jack Campbell (now Edmonton Oilers) and Petr Mrazek (now Chicago Blackhawks) in the summer and each came with questions to be answered.   

For Murray, acquired from the Ottawa Senators, it was whether he could remain healthy and re-discover the form which won him two Stanley Cup's with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 3016 and 2017.   

An injury after just one game instilled little confidence but after recovering and returning Murray has been spectacular producing a 6-1-2 record, .932 save-percentage and 2.34 GAA.   

Samsonov had a terrific rookie season with the Washington Capitals in 2019/20, but his form dipped over the following two seasons and he was allowed to leave and join the Leafs as a free agent.    

While also injured for a short while to start the season, like Murray, Samsonov is back healthy and has an impressive 8-2-0 record in nine starts, .933 save-percentage and 1.87 GAA. 

Murray is most likely to get the start against the Flames, but whoever coach Sheldon Keefe turns to, the Leafs will be more than confident in their ability to give them a chance to be successful, something that General Manager Kyle Dubas will feel particularly smug about.   

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New Flames heating up

The Flames underwent a big change in the off-season with top-scorers Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk leaving and being replaced on the forward lines by Jonathan Huberdeau (from Florida Panthers) and Nazem Kadri (from Colorado Avalanche). 

Kadri, 32, began life in Calgary well and his offensive production was needed as Huberdeau who had 115 points last season began slowly. 

As Kadri's production dropped in November, Huberdeau, 29, began to find his feet and put-up numbers to help keep the Flames in the playoff fight.   

Both now look comfortable in their new surroundings, and as a result the Flames' performance have got better but an improvement is still needed on their 3.00 average goals-per game which ranks 22nd in the league. 

This will be particularly true against the Leafs who rank third in the NHL for average goals against with 2.36.    

Kadri has 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 27 games and Huberdeau 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in 24 games.   

Marner red hot 

Speaking of heating up, Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner is burning red hot and with Auston Matthews will be key for the Flames to try and shut down.   

Marner, 25 is on an all-time franchise record point streak of 21 games, scoring ten goals and 18 assists during the run.    

With 33 points (11 goals, 22 assists), the Canadian winger leads the team and ranks 16th overall in the NHL.   

After becoming the first Maple Leaf to score 60 goals in a single campaign last season, Matthews, also 25, had just one goal in his first seven goals of the season, but since has 13 in 21 games including five in his last six.  

Toronto's offence started slowly this season, and they are an unusual 14th in the league for average goals per-game with 3.14, but with several members of their defence injured, their focus has been on developing a tight structure and trusting that their offence will grow from that which it has in recent weeks.  

With the Leafs proving strong at both ends of the ice, they are 8/1 to end their 55-year NHL longest drought to win the Stanley Cup this season while their opponents on Sunday, the Flames are 20/1

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