With all three teams ahead of them in the Atlantic Division currently on multi-game winning streaks, the Maple Leafs — losers of two of their last three — will attempt to keep themselves within shouting distance of the division lead with a measuring-stick game tonight against the Florida Panthers (7:00 p.m., Sportsnet).
That we’ve had to wait this long to see these two teams square off this season is a little bizarre, and it’s unfortunate it is coming on the second half of a back-to-back for both clubs, but this should be must-see TV tonight regardless.
Both sides play with a lot of speed and skill and are among the league leaders in all of the KPIs you look for in good NHL teams — even-strength possession numbers, even-strength expected goal share, even-strength shot share, combined special teams — with one key exception: Florida is merely middle of the pack in 5v5 save percentage, while the Leafs remain all the way down in 29th in the category.
This challenge tonight for the Leafs in the crease will be handed to Petr Mrazek, who was able to settle his game down somewhat in the midweek win over New Jersey but will face a whole new level of challenge tonight against a deep Panthers team that can attack in waves, with a top-nine up front consisting of three separate lines that could just as easily lead the way offensively for them on any given night (as well as a fourth line that has a clear identity and can be a pain in the ass to play against).
The Panthers are without their number-one defenseman in Aaron Ekblad, but it hasn’t slowed them down any (at least not yet) with three straight wins in his absence, albeit over non-playoff opposition. They played a somewhat similarly-natured game to the Leafs last night in that they visited a bottom-feeding team and struggled to break through for large portions of the game despite dominating on the shot clock. However, while the Leafs couldn’t find a way to get a third past Jake Allen, Florida was down 3-0 at one point and clawed their back to to tie it late and then win it through a Aleksander Barkov tying goal and shootout winner.
The Leafs‘ goaltending and depth scoring — knowing they’re still looking for answers on lines two and four — will be brought into focus tonight as they take on a Panthers team that presents matchup headaches. Sheldon Keefe will start William Nylander on the third line with David Kampf, while Ilya Mikheyev starts with John Tavares, just as he finished the game in Montreal.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on this game as a “measuring stick” for his group:
I don’t know if measuring stick is the right wording. They’re a good team. We want to play well against them. We have played against just about everybody else in the league, so there are a lot of really good teams we have competed against. This is the last one on the list.
Keefe on the challenge the Panthers present:
Speed, skill, depth. Offense can come from any of their four lines. In fact, their third line is equally as productive as their top six at five on five. Lots to be aware of there.
They come with a lot of pace, a lot of competitiveness, and they’re a physical team. They have a lot going on. They have been the class of the Eastern Conference.
Keefe on former Marlie Mason Marchment blossoming on the Panthers this season:
He has been terrific. It is a terrific story. He has come a long way, worked real hard, and battled through a lot of injuries and adversity. He stuck with it and has found a good home in Florida.
Keefe on the challenge of shaking up the second line knowing the third line is humming along nicely:
It is a challenge. It is why we have been reluctant to do it for a while now because that line has been so good for us. The hope is that Mikheyev moving up can just continue to play with the speed and confidence he has and that will change the dynamic of things a little bit there. Miky has played with John at various times over the last few years. Let’s see what that can bring.
Kampf and Engvall have been very good and very responsible both ways. Willy brings an offensive threat there, too, and we will see what that does for the chemistry.
It is also good timing. As I talked about, this is a four-line team we are playing today. They are going to come at us here. There is not a lot of variance in offensive production between lines one, two, and three. The way we have things balanced today makes a lot of sense that way.
Keefe on the team’s lack of 5v5 offense in last few games:
We certainly think we should be producing more for sure. We have had one line that has really been carrying us offensively for quite a while. We have had contributions from different lines at different times. That Kampf line scored us some big goals, but some of their production has come shorthanded.
We need to get more happening from our lines. I thought we had some really good chances yesterday — all lines had some really good chances, and we didn’t make good on them. We just have to stay with it. With the ability we have as a group, we believe those will come.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kampf – #88 William Nylander
#11 Colin Blackwell – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
Starter: #34 Petr Mrazek
#50 Erik Källgren
Injured: Jack Campbell, Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin
LTIR: Jake Muzzin
Florida Panthers Projected Lines
#23 Carter Verhaeghe – #16 Aleksander Barkov – #28 Claude Giroux
#11 Jonathan Huberdeau – #9 Sam Bennett – #10 Anthony Duclair
#17 Mason Marchment – #27 Eetu Luostarinen – #13 Sam Reinhart
#94 Ryan Lomberg – #55 Noel Acciari – #70 Patric Hornqvist
#8 Ben Chiarot – #52 Mackenzie Weegar
#42 Gustav Forsling – #7 Radko Gudas
#18 Robert Hagg – #62 Brandon Montour
#30 Spencer Knight
#72 Sergei Bobrovsky
Injured: Aaron Ekblad, Markus Nutivaara, Anton Lundell