Coming off of an ugly 8-1 loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning — their likeliest first-round opponent — the Maple Leafs will attempt to rebound against the class of the Eastern Conference in the Florida Panthers (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
It is unrealistic to expect any team to play their best hockey every single night over an 82-game season, let alone when rest becomes a priority and key personnel is sitting out of the lineup in preparation for the playoffs. The consternation over a loss as lopsided as Thursday night is understandable given the prospect of a Lightning-Leafs round-one matchup. That said, the Leafs and Lightning split the season series in the end, with one convincing victory for each team and then two tightly-contested games that came down to the finish. All indications are this would be a long, hard-fought series if this first-round matchup were to come to pass.
The 8-1 defeat on Thursday was the worst loss Toronto has experienced since November of 2016 when they fell 7-0 to the LA Kings. However, there is no time to dwell on the recent past as the Leafs enter their final matchup of the season series against a team fresh off of clinching not only the Atlantic Division crown but the Eastern Conference regular-season title in the Florida Panthers.
The Panthers are coming into this game scorching hot, currently in the midst of a 12-game win streak that ties their longest in franchise history with a chance to break the record at home against Toronto. Their record of 56-15-6 is currently at the top of the NHL as well, sitting two points up on the Avalanche for the lead in the President’s Trophy race. Their 72 percent overall win rate is insanely impressive, but somehow the Panthers are even better on home ice, where they’ve won 84 percent of their games for a record of 33-6-0.
Florida’s trademark this season has been their offensive play as the only team in the league that has scored over four goals per game (4.18). They have set a new bar for offense in the salary-cap era, with their first goal against the Red Wings on Thursday dethroning the 2018-19 Lightning for the most goals in a season since the cap was introduced (and the most since 1996).
Everyone knows how good of a season Jonathan Huberdeau is having. He currently is sitting at 113 points on the year, just three points behind Connor McDavid in the Art Ross race. Because he’s missed some time this year through injury, we might not be fully recognizing just how bonkers of a season Aleksander Barkov is putting together. He has racked up 38 goals and 86 points in 64 games this year (an 82-game pace of 48 goals and 110 points).
For the Leafs, their lingering concern has less to do with on-ice play and more about the health of Auston Matthews. He has missed the last three games due to an undisclosed injury, and while the team remained adamant that it was minor, any injury at this point of the season is cause for concern. Fortunately, Matthews is set to return to action tonight, which gives him these last four games of the season to ramp up for the playoffs as well as to chase down the 60-goal plateau.
Unfortunately, Jake Muzzin will remain sidelined tonight, although Sheldon Keefe says there’s a chance he could play against Washington tomorrow night.
To make room for Matthews, Jason Spezza will come out of the lineup. With the season winding down, Keefe has been openly experimenting with different combinations, particularly up front in preparation for the likelihood of needing to mix things at various points in the playoffs. However, because the Leafs have did not practice or have a morning skate, the exact combinations will remain unknown until line rushes in warmups.
In goal, Jack Campbell will make his 46th start of the season. He is entering the game on a personal three-game win streak and has won six of his past seven starts. With Keefe choosing to alternate goalies down the stretch, it seems likely that this will be Campbell’s penultimate start of the regular season.
At the other end, Sergei Bobrovsky has won his past five starts since the last time these two teams met. Speaking of the last meeting, Bobrovsky was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots before the Leafs, tired in a back-to-back situation, coughed up their 5-1 lead and lost 7-6 in overtime.
This season, Bobrovsky’s stats are nearly identical to Campbell’s: both have a .913 save percentage, Campbell has a 2.69 goals-against average, and Bobrovsky has a 2.64. Campbell is an impressive 30-9-5 on the year, while Bobrovsky is an otherworldly 38-6-3.
First Round Opponent Probabilities
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the benefit of Auston Matthews’ extra rest while nursing an injury:
He plays a lot. There’s a lot of attention on him when teams are playing against him and a lot of wear and tear on him. Getting time to recover and rest is important.
If not for the injury, we probably wouldn’t have given him that time, but it is part of what comes with it. Mitch Marner missed a good stretch of time this year with an injury, and we see what it’s done for him in terms of how he’s played since coming back from that.
Time off and recovery time is really hard to come by in the NHL. It certainly is one of the positives that comes from injuries.
Keefe on moving on from Thursday’s game in Tampa:
It is done. We’re here today and we’ve got a new opponent. It’s a new day today, but the experience out there that’s lasting — we have to take that and be better as a result.
I think that’s the reality: recognizing that while you’re looking big picture and you’re looking forward to the playoffs, you’ve got games to play here. Teams are motivated for their own reasons, and they are motivated to play against us.
We saw a very motivated and committed team in Tampa the other night. This team here in Florida doesn’t give any team an inch, which is why they are who they are in the standings, so we can’t take a night off like we did the other night.
Keefe on the Panthers’ 12-game winning streak:
It’s impressive. If they get a lead, they don’t seem to give it up. If they’re playing from behind, they seem to find their way back, and then pick up their extra points in overtime or whatever the case may be.
Even when you feel like you’ve got a lead and you’re feeling good about yourself — and we experienced it, obviously, but a number of teams in the league this year have experienced it — Florida turns it on and finds a way to get two points out of it. It’s impressive what they’ve done this season.
Auston Matthews on working his way back from injury:
It’s been a little bit difficult just trying to work through it, but we’ve got a great staff here. I think the communication has been great in getting everything that I need to help me feel better.
It’s been a pretty solid week, so I feel comfortable getting back in tonight. These are important games for us coming up, so it’s exciting.
Matthews on what can be accomplished over the last four games of the regular season:
I think these are just really good opportunities for us to hone in our game and make sure we are firing on all cylinders. Obviously, the other night wasn’t pretty, but you’ve got kind of move past that and move forward. You have to take the good with the bad.
Obviously, we got our asses kicked, so I would like to think that we are going to be a very motivated team tonight to get back on track, but these are also games where we need to make sure that we’re firing on all cylinders. These games matter.
We’re playing a team in our division tonight and a team that has been at the top of the class all year long, so these games are going to be difficult, but these are the exact games that we need heading into the playoffs.
Mitch Marner on the last time the Leafs and Panthers met:
Kind of a tale of two stories of our team; playing the kind of hockey where we’re going and playing well, and then just giving up too many chances and too many easy opportunities around our net. They’ve got a skillful group over there with a lot of guys that can score, and they made sure it was clear to us.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#88 William Nylander – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#43 Kyle Clifford – #11 Colin Blackwell – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#78 T.J. Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren
Extras: Nick Abruzzese, Jason Spezza, Carl Dahlstrom
Injured: Jake Muzzin
LTIR: Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin, Petr Mrazek
Florida Panthers Projected Lines
#11 Jonathan Huberdeau – #16 Aleksander Barkov – #10 Anthony Duclair
#17 Mason Marchment – #9 Sam Bennett – #28 Claude Giroux
#98 Maxim Mamin – #15 Anton Lundell – #13 Sam Reinhart
#94 Ryan Lomberg – #27 Eetu Luostarinen – #55 Noel Acciari
#8 Ben Chiarot – #52 Mackenzie Weegar
#42 Gustav Forsling – #62 Brandon Montour
#32 Lucas Carlsson – #7 Radko Gudas
Starter: #72 Sergei Bobrovsky
#30 Spencer Knight
Injured: Aaron Ekblad, Markus Nutivaara, Carter Verhaeghe