The Maple Leafs are looking to end a two-game losing skid against an under-achieving Florida Panthers team tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).
The need to clean up the turnovers that plagued the Leafs at key moments in the loss to Boston on Saturday will be critical against this Panthers team. While they’re struggling defensively and in net in the first half of the season and currently sit a few points out of a wildcard position in the East, Florida largely remains the really dangerous offensive team they were during their President’s Trophy-winning season last year (top five in 5v5 goals, expected goals, and shot attempts) and are particularly dangerous in transition.
In addition to the freebies they gifted the Bruins with a few costly turnovers, a few more saves in the second half of the game vs. the Bruins also would’ve gone a long way for the Leafs. Goaltender Matt Murray will get the chance to rebound in net tonight.
This morning, Sheldon Keefe mentioned wanting to give Murray a chance to bounce back as well as the plan to give him more home games than they did in the first half of the season. The Leafs haven’t deviated too far from the plan to share the crease evenly (Murray is at 18 starts and Ilya Samsonov is at 17), but Keefe might be talking around the reality of the situation somewhat.
The even split between Murray and Samsonov is a plan that makes sense so long as both goalies are rolling and pushing each other with consistently strong performances, but this hasn’t been the reality since December 15 (the Leafs are 27th in the NHL in team save percentage in the last month). Murray is the goalie with the stronger NHL pedigree who is paid $4.7 million for this season and next; depending on how it goes tonight, do the Leafs give him the chance to try to find a bit of a groove with a big challenge against Winnipeg coming up on Thursday?
Tonight will be Murray’s sixth start to Samsonov’s three since New Year’s Eve, and whether intentional or not, Murray has taken the tougher games against Colorado, Seattle, Boston, and now Florida compared to Samsonov’s two starts vs. Detroit and one vs. St. Louis.
In terms of the rest of the lineup, Pontus Holmberg and Rasmus Sandin are on the mend from the flu — both participated in the morning skate — but neither will play tonight. That opens the door to shift the pairings around and move Timothy Liljegren next to Morgan Rielly as the Rielly – Conor Timmins failed experiment comes to an end after one game.
Up front, Bobby McMann is healthy enough to return to the lineup and will play on a line with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall. All three players are 6’2 or taller with good speed, which could make for an intriguing new configuration on line three.
Head to Head: Panthers vs. Maple Leafs
In the season-to-date statistics, the Panthers hold the advantage over the Leafs in three out of five offensive categories, while the Leafs hold the advantage over the Panthers in five out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the differences in the Panthers’ game vs. last season:
Some things have changed and some things have remained the same. We just played against Boston, who is one of the top offensive teams in the league in many statistical categories. This team actually trends higher and better than them.
In that sense, offensively, they have been extremely dynamic. They make a lot of plays. Their defensemen are very involved in a lot of what they do. They are very good around your net. They’re great in transition.
All of those things have held true to last season as well. I haven’t watched closely or long enough over the course of the season to point out why it hasn’t worked out as well for him, but in terms of the respect we have for them as a team and as players, that is unchanged.
Statistically, you look at it, and it is a dangerous-looking team. If you are not prepared for them, they’ll make you look bad. They are also one that I am sure believes in themselves and believes they can have a strong second half with a strong push.
They looked really good in their game yesterday afternoon. I am sure they are coming in feeling good today.
Keefe on the decision to go back to Matt Murray in net:
We just felt that getting him back in would be good. We liked his game the other day. We also thought that an opportunity to get right back in would be good for him.
We are also mindful of the fact that we are trying to increase his workload on home ice. He has played a lot of road games. We thought getting him some time in the net at home would be good.
We thought he did a really good job against Nashville for us when we were in here. It is a chance to get right back at it at home.
Keefe on the continued progress of Timothy Liljegren on the blue line:
With Lily, I would put it to the consistency. I think he had times last season where you could really see him popping. For that, I would point to physicality on the rush, killing plays early, winning the puck back, and launching the transition. There is also the way the puck is coming off of his stick in the offensive zone.
It is just happening more frequently. He seems to be that much more comfortable playing both sides of the puck this season. He really took big steps last season. He seems to have maintained that and continued to find the consistency necessary to be a guy who is just in your lineup, you are happy to have him, and you can lean on him when you really need to.
He seems like he has been able to handle everything we have thrown his way.
Timothy Liljegren on the challenges defending the Panthers and Matthew Tkachuk:
They’re good on the rush. Their D are good at joining rush. We need some good backchecking and to play solid defense to take those things away. At the same time, we have to try to create some offense for ourselves.
[Tkachuk] is a very good player. He plays on the edge. He is a big body and is tough to move around. You have to be in good positions to take him away.
Matthew Tkachuk on the Panthers winning five of their last seven:
There is belief in this room. In each game, it doesn’t matter who we are playing. We played two top teams in the West on a tough road trip, and we went in there and believed we could win those games. We brought that home against Vancouver. We brought it [vs. Buffalo].
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#74 Bobby McMann – #64 David Kämpf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #20 Dryden Hunt
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#18 Jordie Benn – #25 Conor Timmins
Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#35 Ilya Samsonov
Extras: Wayne Simmonds
Injured/Out: Rasmus Sandin, Pontus Holmberg, TJ Brodie, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
Florida Panthers Projected Lines
#15 Anton Lundell – #16 Aleksander Barkov – #13 Sam Reinhart
#23 Carter Verhaeghe – #9 Sam Bennett – #19 Matthew Tkachuk
#14 Grigori Denisenko – #27 Eetu Luostarinen – #21 Nick Cousins
#94 Ryan Lomberg – #12 Eric Staal – #54 Givani Smith
#42 Gustav Forsling – #5 Aaron Ekblad
#18 Marc Staal – #62 Brandon Montour
#28 Josh Mahura – #7 Radko Gudas
Starter: #72 Sergei Bobrovsky
#34 Alex Lyon
Injured: Anthony Duclair, Patric Hornqvist, Spencer Knight