After a blowout win in New Jersey, the Toronto Maple Leafs are up against another Eastern bottom feeder in the Panthers looking for redemption on home ice after an overtime loss in Florida last weekend (7 p.m., Sportsnet Ontario).

In their meeting with Florida Saturday, the Leafs weren’t ready to start the game and put in a less than stellar opening 40 minutes. The Panthers, standings aside, can make life hard on teams through the neutral zone and the Leafs were reluctant to get pucks in deep and go to work down low in the Panthers zone. In the third, the Leafs came out with shuffled lines and dominated, coming back from 2-0 down and then again from 3-2 down, with Mitch Marner and John Tavares’ brilliance earning them a point they arguably hadn’t earned on the merits of their 60-minute performance.

While it’s silly to focus too much on one player against any opponent, it’s miraculous how big of an impact Alexander Barkov has on his team — 33 points in 32 games, 23:09 per night (leads the entire league in ice time among forwards), second on the team in defensive zone starts, plays PP and PK, hasn’t taken a penalty this year (!), and he’s drawn the second most penalties on the team. Babcock challenged his group a bit by poking their pride in the press yesterday, saying Barkov ran the Leafs‘ show in Florida and they’ve got to put an end to that tonight. It’ll take a by-committee effort from the Leafs centers given Barkov doesn’t leave the ice.

The Leafs are coming off a 7-2 rout over the Devils between tonight and the last meeting vs. Florida, as New Jersey ran into the Leafs at the wrong time and Toronto essentially ended the game inside the first period. It was a complete performance — pretty much over inside 13 minutes, all four lines scored (top nine was all going early, fourth line closed strong), Frederik Andersen bounced back after a couple of average starts, and they won the special teams battle (no PK goals against and an unofficial PP goal seconds after the expiry in the first). It was just what the doctor ordered to avoid a third straight loss — something the Leafs still haven’t done this season through 35 games.

More of the same tonight and the Leafs should be able to walk away with both points in the rematch.


Game Day Quotes: Mike Babcock

What is it about the nature of tonight’s opposition that will force your guys to find time and space when it’s not going to be there a lot of the night?

Babcock: Number one, we just played them and they beat us. We didn’t touch the puck enough for two periods. They played harder than we did. That’s one message. The second message is Barkov was a star, won faceoffs, dominated defensively/offensively, and their specialty teams were better than ours… I’d say any one of those things you can look at and get motivation from.

Do you think that Barkov gets the attention that he deserves around the league for how good of a player that he is?

Babcock: Well, he doesn’t play in Toronto. Obviously, he’s not having this [media coverage] every day, but in saying that, I think he’s a really good player. He’s really respected around the league and I don’t think – if you talk to the coaches or the players – anybody has him underrated. But he’s not in a market media-wise, probably, to get the kind of attention you would in some other places.

How much does Luongo have left?

Babcock: It’s interesting because I had Dom [Hasek] at the end there. You know those guys that are smarter than everybody else; their hockey sense is better. I remember playing against Lou in the Memorial Cup and stopped 62 [shots], or something, and we beat them in overtime when I was in Spokane. He knew where the puck was coming then before anybody else kind of knew. He knew where the play was coming — he still does that.

I think what happens to you, though, is you can’t be the workhorse, probably, you could be [when you were younger]. Maybe not bounce back the same and maybe get injured more. But if you know Lou – I’ve had him [play for him] a number of times – his carefree personality, his love of the game and the kind of guy he is, there’s not a lot of stress there. He just comes out and plays. And he’s smart. So as long as he can keep reading the play it looks to me like he’s doing a good job.

Hall of famer?

Babcock: Oh, I think…. I don’t know… What are the numbers? Like, he’s a shoe in for me, but they don’t phone me for that.

Coaches feel differently about this: Caring about the standings from the player’s perspective. Some coaches over the years put the standings in the room and have the players look at it on the way in and on the way out. We don’t see that in your room.

Babcock: Oh no, it’s in there…

Tampa, eight points up…. does that matter to you?

Babcock: No, I think it all matters. I think the standings, the penalty kill, the power play — there’s stuff up every day. There’s a thing that flips and goes — they see it all the time — but I don’t think they need to see it in our room to see it. They got this thing called a phone they’re on 24/7. They got a pretty good handle on what’s going on.

Does it matter? It looks to me like Tampa’s better than us. It looks like they’re better than everybody right now in the league. And I’m not saying they’re deeper. I’m not saying they’re more talented. I’m not saying any of that, but their maturity level to play every night and find a way to win seems to be there. They’ve been through kind of what a lot of the teams are going through. A number of times they’ve had disappointment at playoff time and they look like they’re battle scarred and ready to go.

In saying all that, we all got all this time to get in the playoffs and to get ready. And that’s what this is about. Sometimes your best stretches are when you’re disappointed a little bit and you’ve got to dig in a little harder.

What did you think of Auston and Mitch in the the Nutcracker?

Babcock: You know what — Bruce has the clip — I just saw the stuff that Bruce sent to me last night, obviously, when I talked to each guy this morning and they said it was outstanding. They had a real good time. The other thing they talked about was how good the athletes were. My daughter grew up — my oldest girl — being a ballerina and so I’ve kind of had a pretty good handle. I’ve been to enough of those shows to understand how elite the athletes are, but I think it’s good for people in our profession to see other professions and how hard they train, how hard they work, and how prepared they are. The guys said it was spectacular.

Is that also a good example of the sort of thing you say about getting away from the game once and a while and get getting outside their comfort zone?

Babcock: Well, they weren’t watching hockey last night, so, you know… I don’t know. They had a good time. They’re energized today. To me, that’s a good thing in your life.

What do you guys need to do to be better than Tampa?

Babcock: I think we just need to keep going. Just keep battling and working. I think these lessons… like, we got a lesson the other night in two periods in Florida. I thought we played well in Tampa. But when you turn the puck over and they scored on two shifts back to back the game was over in a hurry.

The other thing that’s going on right now: We haven’t been as good on our specialty teams. We were really good early. We haven’t been as good of late. I think that’s an important step for us as well. There’s a number of things we have to do to just keep getting better.

For a team that’s so skilled and so fast — do you have a theory for why the Leafs don’t draw that many penalties against them from the opposition?

Babcock: Yeah, this is what I think: I think the officials are really good in the game and I think when you’re the coach and you do any talking about them, it doesn’t do you any good. So you just move on.


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards

#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#18 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #29 William Nylander
#63 Tyler Ennis – #26 Par Lindholm – #28 Connor Brown

Defensemen

#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #92 Igor Ozhiganov

Goaltenders

#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks

Scratched: Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Frederik Gauthier


Florida Panthers Projected Lines

Forwards

#11 Jonathan Huberdeau – #16 Alexander Barkov – #68 Mike Hoffman
#72 Frank Vatrano – #95 Henrik Borgstrom – #63 Evgenii Dadonov
#22 Troy Brouwer – #90 Jared McCann – #62 Denis Malgin
#18 Micheal Haley – #91 Juho Lammikko – #8 Jayce Hawryluk

Defensemen

#3 Keith Yandle – #5 Aaron Ekblad
#18 Micheal Matheson – #13 Mark Pysyk
#6 Alex Petrovic – #52 Mackenzie Weegar

Goaltenders

#1 Roberto Luongo
#23 James Reimer

Injured: Jamie McGinn, Derek Mackenzie, Vincent Trocheck, Nick Bjugstad