Game Day Thread: Panthers at Leafs (7 p.m., Sportsnet)

Game Day Thread: Panthers at Leafs (7 p.m., Sportsnet)

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One of the more effective line renderings of the 2009-10 campaign has been reunited for tonight’s match-up against the Florida Panthers at the Air Canada Centre. Nikolai Kulemin and the struggling Kris Versteeg have swapped places in the top six, with Kulemin rejoining Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel on unit one and Versteeg uniting with Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski on the second line. Here’s hoping sparks fly and the Leafs re-establish themselves offensively after a recent dry spell of only four goals in their last three.

In theory, Wilson’s change seems to balance the top two lines a bit better. Kulemin brings a left handed shot, a bigger body down low and a sorely needed net presence on the powerplay to the first trio; Versteeg a right handed shot to the second (previously lines one and two were all right handed and left handed respectively). Versteeg is also now out of the top match up, which could be beneficial as he looks to gain confidence and get his season on track.

Kulemin also adds an element of playmaking to the first line that could help Bozak’s production along; where Versteeg and Kessel are more shoot-first, Kulemin – while owning a good shot of his own as well – is more of a capable and willing passer. Versteeg for his part must cut down on the turn overs and simplify his game; his -4 rating is not reflective of his ability at either end of the ice.

The only player with the dubious honour of a worse plus/minus than Versteeg at the moment is captain Phaneuf (-5). At this point it seems to be mostly a byproduct of trying too hard and lacking discipline in his decisions of when to pinch and join the rush. Picking your spots better and limiting turnovers were more than likely points of emphasis for the coaching staff not only for Phaneuf but partner Francois Beauchemin and the team as a whole. The Leafs as a collective have 86 giveaways in 7 games, the third highest total in the league.

The Leafs have lost their last two against the Panthers but split last year’s four game season series. In both losing efforts, the Maple Leafs ran into hot Florida goaltenders, first getting shut out by Tomas Vokun in a 2-0 loss in late January and then mustering only one past Scott Clemmensen on 42 shots in a 4-1 loss in March. Thankfully the Leafs still won, but Bryan McCabe scored twice against the Leafs in game two of the season series in early January and he comes into tonight as the Panthers’ assists leader with five helpers through six.

The Leafs hold a definite physical edge and must use this to the full advantage tonight. Their 195 hits place them sixth league wide whereas Florida sits dead last by a fair margin with just 96. The Panthers are also the least penalized team in the league (Cory Stillman is the goon with a team-leading 6PIMs) at a mere 5.5 penalty minutes per game. The Leafs’ powerplay is slipping itself (now 19th at 12.5%), but Florida sits last in that category with just one goal in 23 man advantage situations (4.4 percent success rate). Given the Panthers are .500 despite that incompetency, they seem to be playing pretty good 5-on-5 hockey at the moment. In other words, the Leafs must continue to play physical and cash in on the PP chances if they get ‘em.

Jean Sebastien Giguere will be back between the pipes tonight in hopes of a rebound performance after conceding five in Philadelphia. Giguere wasn’t at his best but must have felt like the ice was tilted toward his net after facing 45 shots. I like the decision to go right back to him instead of letting him sit on that one.

Toss your predictions in the comments.

Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]