Coming off a highly-impressive team effort in a playoff atmosphere in Tampa Bay, the Maple Leafs have made the trip south to Sunrise to face the division-leading Florida Panthers as they try to put more distance between them and the rest of the Atlantic Division in the battle for home-ice advantage (7 p.m. EST, TSN4).
While they would need help in the form of the Panthers slipping in the final stretch, the Maple Leafs still have a fighting chance of catching the Panthers and finishing the season at the top of the Atlantic Division. Both teams have 13 games remaining and are separated by seven points so, realistically, it’s a long shot, but a five-point gap looks a lot better than nine entering tonight’s four-point game. This will be a tough test against a rested Panthers team playing at home (where they’re 28-6-0), but the Leafs might be able to ride in on the wave from last night’s victory and jump on Florida early.
With six wins in their last seven games and 13 wins in their last 16, the Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Despite that, the Leafs have kept pace by winning their last five and equalling the Panthers’ 8-2-0 record in their last 10. The Panthers have scored 23 times and given up 13 in just four games, while the Leafs have scored 25 and given up 12.
The main department where the Panthers have held the edge is an area of the game where they’ve dominated for most of this season: five-on-five offense. Since March 15th (last 10 games), the Panthers have produced 3.9 xG/60 (first) to the Leafs 3.1 (sixth) at even-strength. Defensively, the Leafs have really made strides as of late, ranking fifth in the league in xGA/60 while the Panthers rank 10th. In terms of their actual goal share, both teams have been very close over that span (Panthers 58.5% vs. Leafs 59.4%).
Worth noting is the Panthers’ strength of schedule in the last few weeks. While they’ve been extremely busy — they’ve had four back-to-backs in their last 16 games — their last 13 wins dating back to March 3rd have come against the following teams:
- Buffalo (x2)
- Ottawa (x2, one in SO)
- Montreal (x2)
- New Jersey (OT)
- San Jose (OT)
That is 12-of-13 wins against teams that have been all but eliminated from the playoffs. Comparatively, the Leafs have wins against the Lightning, Panthers, and Bruins all within the last nine days. Just sayin’…
With Boston’s win against Columbus in overtime last night and the Leafs’ subsequent win over Tampa, the Bruins have taken over third place in the Atlantic. Boston has now won three in a row and is tied with the Lightning, who own a nearly identical record. As a result, the Bruins are now the Leafs’ most likely first-round opponent, per hockeyviz.com:
As mentioned yesterday, Jake Muzzin will make his return tonight after recovering from a concussion sustained on February 21st. To keep a healthy familiarity in place among the defense pairs, it sounds like T.J Brodie will join Morgan Rielly for tonight, Giordano — Liljegren will remain together, and Muzzin will play with Holl (we all know the mixed history with that pairing).
The Leafs have a good thing going on the blue line at the moment as a six-man unit, and ideally, Muzzin can find a way to slide in and continue the momentum, but it’s a tricky situation for Keefe to navigate. Holl’s game is in a better place than it was when the two last played together, and hopefully, Muzzin is rejuvenated and refreshed in a similar manner to Jack Campbell since his layoff. But we’ll watch and find out.
Campbell won’t receive the start tonight, but it’s still worth acknowledging his performance in his two starts since returning, which is as or more important of a development than all the goal-scoring the team has done in the recent stretch. Taking his time with the recovery from his rib injury seems to have paid off. Without the play of Erik Källgren in his absence, the team might have been more inclined to rush Campbell’s recovery along, so credit belongs to the rookie for calming the waters in a tough situation.
Källgren, tonight’s starter, looks to be the team’s backup for the rest of the season barring a quicker-than-expected recovery from Petr Mrazek. He is 4-2-1 on the season with a .906 Sv%.
In the midst of a big comeback season, Sergei Bobrovsky will get receive start tonight for the Panthers. He has won his last eight starts and is 33-6-3 on the season with a .914 Sv%.
Game Day Quotes
Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette on the challenge against the Leafs tonight:
I think we just need to play our game here on home ice. [The Leafs] are playing exceptional here, especially since we played them, so it’s a big challenge. It’ll be a fun game.
It was a fun hockey game last night [in Tampa] and they’re playing really well right now, so it’s a good test.
Brunette on his team’s last loss coming against the Leafs and their lack of playoff-bound opposition as of late:
We haven’t seen a team like that since we’ve played Toronto and we haven’t seen that calibre for a little bit. Different challenges arise every game — you play some teams that are out of the playoffs that play extremely hard and other teams don’t so it’s hard to gauge. We know we’re both going to be in and we’re going to have to go through each other if we want to win, so it’s just fun to see where we’re at right now.
They checked the hell out of us in Toronto. We were not connected, which is something we talk about all the time. We didn’t have the will they had that game, so tonight we’re going to have to make sure we bring more of that than we did in Toronto.
Brunette on his team’s five-forward first powerplay unit:
When you have a player like [Barkov] on your team, he can play anywhere and probably be the best player in any position. We’re a little blessed with him back there because when we go five forwards because he’s very capable on the back end.
I don’t know the benefits — maybe a bit more offensive firepower, but that’s hard to say. It’s kind of a roll the dice to see what fits. We’re still trying to find our rhythm here and we’re trying to find ourselves, so we’re moving things around, which is healthy. We’ve just got to start dialling it in.
T.J Brodie on watching Auston Matthews this season:
I think the most impressive thing about him is how he scores from all different types of areas on different types of plays — going to the net or getting a tip. Obviously, his shot is elite and he’s just always in the mix.
It’s just fun to watch, especially last night just watching his release. Night in and night out, it’s something special.
Brodie on Pierre Engvall’s improvement this season:
Obviously, he’s been contributing. The physicality that he’s started to bring to his game — he’s a big guy that’s fast and can move. Once he starts using his body, it’s tough to beat him.
Brodie on the strength of the team’s blue-line:
There’s not a guy that I wouldn’t want to play with back there. I get to play with different guys and get to know their tendencies. You can always get better by learning and playing with different guys.
Sheldon Keefe on how much Matthews’ dominance changes his gameplan:
No doubt, he makes a big difference to the mindset of our team and the confidence of our team. I think that’s all the more reason for us to make sure we’re good defensively. That’s our focus: that we take care of our end and our play without the puck because we have great belief that — whether it’s Auston or a number of others that can score — it sets us up to win games.
Keefe on how he decided on his D-pairs tonight.
Tough decision, frankly. That’s just because everyone has played well, Lyubushkin too. I love what he’s brought to our team since he’s been here. Just some different dynamics with Muzzin coming in and how the pairings would shake out. That, and last night, I thought the Rielly and Lyubushkin pairing of the three had the toughest night. That’s the decision we’ll make here today, but I think we’re in a good spot here now with Muzzin coming back.
It’s not unlike what we had earlier in the season when we had a bit of a rotation going on and great competition happening. This is different, though — we truly have seven guys that can play every night and can play in any situation.
A big factor here tonight is the threat of their power play — we’ve liked what Holl and Liljegren have done on the PK. Liljegren has been outstanding since he’s had Giordano with him, so that’s the decision for tonight.
Keefe on Wayne Simmonds’ play lately and how the forward depth is shaking out:
I think he’s been very determined — not just him, Kyle Clifford is just the same. Not only that, but he’s been in the minors as well. I think with Spezza, Clifford, and Simmonds we have three guys that are very committed and are competing for ice and are competing to solidify their place in our lineup. The way that’ll go from here on out is those guys will battle and [the rotation] will continue.
I really liked what I’ve seen from them, and now you add in Blackwell and Abruzzese. I thought [Abruzzese] had a great game on the road against Tampa last night — not an easy thing for a player with his inexperience to do, but he showed positive progression, so we like how some of that depth is coming together. Whether it’s the more experienced guys or the less experienced guys, I think that competition is serving well.
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
#43 Kyle Clifford – #11 Colin Blackwell – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
Starter: #50 Erik Källgren
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras: Nick Abruzzese, Ilya Lyubushkin, Wayne Simmonds
Injured: Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin
LTIR: Petr Mrazek
Florida Panthers Projected Lines
#23 Carter Verhaeghe – #16 Alexander Barkov – #10 Anthony Duclair
#11 Jonathan Huberdeau – #9 Sam Bennett – #28 Claude Giroux
#17 Mason Marchment – #15 Anton Lundell – #13 Sam Reinhart
#94 Ryan Lomberg – #27 Eetu Luostarinen – #70 Patric Hornqvist
#42 Gustav Forsling – #52 Mackenzie Weegar
#8 Ben Chiarot – #7 Radko Gudas
#18 Robert Hagg – #62 Brandon Montour
Starter: #72 Sergei Bobrovsky
#30 Spencer Knight
Injured/Out: Aaron Ekblad, Marcus Nutivaara, Noel Acciari