Now missing their two best defensemen, the Toronto Maple Leafs will finish up their Florida road trip against the Panthers in the most important game of the year to date for both teams (7 p.m. ET, TSN4).

Jake Muzzin’s broken hand diagnosis was a massive blow to the Leafs organization at a time when results are everything. Muzzin had found a different gear in the last few games, stepping up at a time of turmoil and leading a young blue line during the absence of Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci. Now, it’s up to five of the six defensemen that took park in the Marlies run to the Calder Cup in 2018 — plus Tyson Barrie — to hold down the fort.

Thankfully for Toronto, the Panthers haven’t exactly been rolling since the All-Star break. In 14 games, they’ve gone 5-8-1, the league’s 8th worst record since February 1st. While their rates for expected goals on the season are already on the weaker side for a team with a fighting chance at the playoffs — 18th in xGF and 26th xGA — they’ve sunk even further in that time frame, sitting 28th in xGF/60 26th in xGA/60.

Both in actual goal production and play-driving, the Panthers have had to heavily rely on their top guns.  How the Leafs can handle the Panthers’ big weapons and support their blue line with good defensive support and structure in five-man units will be a big factor in tonight’s outcome, especially without Sheldon Keefe having control over the matchups. It’s hard to spin the loss of Muzzin into a positive, but unquestionably, it should have the Leafs‘ forwards full attention in regards to their details on the defensive side of the puck tonight.

The biggest key to the gameplan for the Leafs is simply owning the puck and spending as much time in the offensive zone as possible against a Panthers team that doesn’t control the run of play well at all. Even in the tight-checking 2-1 win over Arizona on Tuesday, they were out-possessed ~55/45 in each period, and they’re not breaking even on the season in either CF% (17th) or xGF% (25th).

It’s hard to anticipate what ice time distribution will look like tonight for the Leafs on defense. Dermott and Holl will likely take as much of the Aleksander Barkov matchup as Keefe can manage, but there’s no true matchup pair for the Leafs right now. Sandin, in the process of earning more trust from Sheldon Keefe and Dave Hakstol as his rookie season progresses, will play his biggest 5-on-5 role yet alongside Tyson Barrie. It looks like the Leafs may go with seven defensemen with Martin Marincin and Calle Rosen in the rotation so that they’re covered for the penalty kill along with some mixing-and-matching flexibility for key defensive-zone situations.

In goal, Freddy Andersen is going to start his sixth in a row, and the need for Andersen to build on his recent performances versus Pittsburgh (shutout) and Tampa Bay is underscored all the more with the injury blow on defense. Sergei Bobrovsky, the unconfirmed but likely starter for Florida, hasn’t fluctuated much in his (mostly disappointing) impact this season. He remains seventh last among all goalies with a GSAx of -13.4 — he’s gone 23-18-5 on the season with a save percentage of .900.

Game Day Quotes

Keefe on the team’s confidence coming off of a big win over Tampa:

In terms of the vibe and the energy around our team, it is as good as it has been in a very long time. We earned that through the effort yesterday and the result we got. We want to continue to feel that way. We want to make sure our preparation is really good to just keep moving forward.

Keefe on the challenges on defense with the loss of Jake Muzzin:

It is a challenge, of course. It puts a little more onus on our collective group — the forwards in particular — to do a good job of protecting them. Even if we were healthy, that is part of what we are talking about all the time: Helping our defense and insulating our defense and taking care of the puck and all of those things. It will just be a heightened awareness on that front.

Keefe on the opportunity for Travis Dermott to step up as the team’s de-facto top LD:

I think he has been waiting for the chance to take steps. The first one was with Rielly being out. For a period of time, it was Rielly and Muzzin both out, as it is again here along with Ceci. Everybody is going to be asked to do a little bit more and is going to be required to do more.

Keefe on Rosen’s transition back into the Leafs organization:

I think it will be a seamless transition for him given not just his comfort with me but the entire organization. We have changed a few things here from his time that he was with the Marlies or Leafs last year, so that is going to take a little bit of time to adjust and become accustomed to.

Matchup Stats

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #62 Denis Malgin
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#73 Kyle Clifford – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #19 Jason Spezza

#23 Travis Dermott – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#52 Martin Marincin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#48 Calle Rosen

#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell

Injured: Ilya Mikheyev, Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Andreas Johnsson, Jake Muzzin

Florida Panthers Projected Lines

#11 Jonathan Huberdeau – #16 Aleksander Barkov – #63 Evgenii Dadonov
#68 Mike Hoffman – #56 Erik Haula – #77 Frank Vatrano
#28 Aleksi Saarela – #71 Lucas Wallmark – #10 Brett Connolly
#7 Colton Sceviour – #55 Noel Acciari – #13 Mark Pysyk

#52 Mackenzie Weegar – #5 Aaron Ekblad
#61 Riley Stillman – #6 Anton Stralman
#53 Keith Yandle – #19 Michael Matheson

#72 Sergei Bobrovsky (starter)
#33 Samuel Montembeault

Injured: Chris Driedger, Brian Boyle