The Maple Leafs are desperate for a bounce-back performance against a Florida Panthers team that is in a dogfight for an Eastern Conference wildcard spot (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Sitting just one point out of the final wildcard spot in what looks like a three-way race with the Islanders and Penguins for the last two available playoff spots in the Conference, the Panthers have started to click at the right time. That is, up until Tuesday night’s 6-3 loss to the 26th-place Flyers.
Although the loss looks like a reality check on paper, it was a bit of an odd contest. With inexperienced backup Alex Lyon in net, the Panthers gave up three five-on-five goals in just over two minutes to end the second period, making it 5-2 Flyers to end the period. Florida managed to get one back in the third period on the power play while continuing to generate a fair number of shots and limiting the Flyers to almost nothing, but it wasn’t enough and Philly ended up with an empty netter and a 6-3 win.
With Sergei Bobrovsky back in net tonight and the knowledge that their best players continued to do their jobs despite the loss, the Leafs should be expecting a pretty high-end opponent tonight. All of Florida’s top offensive players have been clicking as of late, with Matthew Tkachuk, Alexander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Anton Lundell, Carter Verhaeghe, and Brandon Montour all at or above 60% xGoals in their last 10 games.
In particular, the pairing of Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe has continued to dominate for the Panthers. Prior to Tuesday’s game, Sam Bennett occupied the spot in between them, but a minor injury has confirmed he’ll miss his second straight game tonight.
It might be much of a factor, however, as Tkachuk seems to dominate play at an elite level no matter who’s on his line. The 25-year-old has some of the best even-strength numbers in the league, sitting 7th in xOffence/60 and 6th in total points at evens with 56 (22 goals, 34 assists). Verhaeghe is 16th overall in points at evens but sits two goals ahead of William Nylander for fifth place in goals league-wide.
The injury train keeps chugging along for the Maple Leafs as Bobby McMann has re-injured the knee that kept him out of the Marlies‘ lineup for a couple of weeks. In lieu of dipping into an already very short Marlies team, or turning to Wayne Simmonds, the Leafs will return to an 11/7 setup tonight.
While anyone who has watched the Leafs this year understands that Kampf and Aston-Reese are about low-event, defensive hockey, they’ve been way below expectation as of late, with both just above 30% xGoals in their last 10 games. Only Bobby McMann, in two games, has had a lower share of xGoals at even strength in that span. Matching up with a Panthers team that doesn’t have a particularly strong bottom six, there’s hope those two can start to look a bit more like themselves.
In a last-minute change, Morgan Rielly will rest tonight. Still, Keefe will roll seven defensemen, with T.J Brodie returning from a minor injury. Luke Schenn slots in as well after playing 13:09 against the Sens on Saturday. Erik Gustafsson and Timothy Liljegren will remain in the lineup, with just Conor Timmins a healthy scratch on defense.
As mentioned, Sergei Bobrovsky returns to the net for Florida tonight after taking the night off on Tuesday. Bobrovsky’s year looks like a minor downgrade from last year, but he has been excellent as of late. He has won six of his last seven starts, including a 33-save performance in a win against a strong Devils team last week.
For the Leafs, Matt Murray will get the start tonight after a very busy night against the Sens on Saturday, while Joseph Woll was an emergency call-up to backup tonight with Ilya Samsonov back in Toronto with his wife expecting a baby.
Murray gave up four goals, but he still earned an insane 48-saves and was impressive in quieting the chaos of the Leafs’ woeful performance on Saturday. With the play of the Panthers’ top-six in recent weeks, he may see a lot of pucks again tonight.
Most notably, this will be a bit of a revenge game for Murray, given the Panthers beat him four times on eight shots back on January 17th, with Carter Verhaeghe scoring less than two minutes into the game. Samsonov came in to relieve Murray just 1:40 into the second period while the Panthers only mustered 20 shots in the game total. Murray is 13-7-2 on the year with a .905 Sv%.
Game Day Quotes
Sam Lafferty on the Panthers:
They’ve been playing really well as of late. They’ve got a high-powered offesce, and they’re a good transition team, so we’ve got to be good defensively and get pucks below the goal line.
Mark Giordano on matching the energy of opponents playing in desperate positions:
I think it’s up to you individually to get up for games. Whatever motivates you, you get in the right mindset. As a team, these are great games to play in. The other team is trying to get into a playoff spot, but for us, it’s about feeling that intensity and knowing that the feeling we get in these games is a playoff-like feel from the other side, so it’s good for us. On the other side, we just need to continue to sharpen up and get ready for the playoffs.
Giordano on Tuesday’s 7-2 loss:
Obviously, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to in the third period, but I felt like through the first two periods we had some really good looks. Their goalie made some big saves.
We did a lot of good thing; we just didn’t like how it snowballed in the third period. There’s obviously mistakes in every game, but for us, it’s about being really sound defensively and creating offense when we can.
Giordano on playing through injuries, roster turnover, etc:
I can only speak for the defensemen. We’ve played with a lot of different guys this year, but it’s just about communication and getting reads on players’ little tendencies. Especially with so many new guys coming in, you get used to everyone. Different situations in different games come up and you’re going to have to play with different guys, so it’s important to get those reps in. For us on defense, it’s all about communication.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#58 Michael Bunting – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #52 Noel Acciari – #28 Sam Lafferty
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf
#22 Jake McCabe – #78 T.J Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#56 Erik Gustafsson – #3 Justin Holl
#2 Luke Schenn
Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#60 Joe Woll
Extras: Morgan Rielly (rest),
Injured: Ryan O’Reilly, Bobby McMann, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete, Alex Steeves
Florida Panthers Projected Lines
#15 Anton Lundell – #16 Aleksander Barkov – #13 Sam Reinhart
#23 Carter Verhaeghe – #27 Eetu Luostarinen – #19 Matthew Tkachuk
#94 Ryan Lomberg – #12 Eric Staal – #10 Anthony Duclair
#54 Givani Smith – #6 Colin White – #21 Nick Cousins
#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: Spencer Knight, Patric Hornqvist, Sam Bennett