The Maple Leafs have their second opportunity inside a week to deal another blow to Florida’s playoff aspirations in Toronto’s first game back on home ice after a five-game road trip (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
All the work the Panthers did to get themselves back into the wildcard mix with a 6-0-1 stretch earlier in March is on the verge of completely unraveling during their current four-game losing streak in which they have conceded 21 goals. Three points back of the second wildcard spot with eight games to go, Florida is fast entering the do-or-die territory heading into the third game of the season series against the Leafs tonight (currently 2-0 in favour of Toronto).
The Leafs handed the Panthers a 6-2 loss last Thursday — a game in which Florida sought to run the Leafs a little bit physically and scored in the first period on the power play to tie the game, but Toronto took care of business at five-on-five and with their first 5-on-3 power play opportunity of the season to all but put the game in hand through 40 minutes. By the end of the night, the Leafs fired five past Sergei Bobrovsky, who is hitting the skids at the worst time of year with a .870 save percentage over his last eight starts.
The game plan will be similar for the Leafs tonight. This is a Florida team that is aggressive offensively, will threaten off the rush, and is dangerous creating off of the cycle in the zone with a group of defensemen eager to activate into the attack. However, the opportunities to expose them without the puck — through structured defensive play and keeping numbers above the puck — will be plentiful throughout the night if the Leafs stay committed to the strong team game that’s rounded back into form through their recent games in Florida, Carolina, and Nashville.
In terms of lineup changes since last week’s game in Florida, Noel Acciari is dealing with a minor short-term injury, which means Wayne Simmonds will dress for the second consecutive game and the Leafs will run 11 and 7. New dad Ilya Samsonov is expected to man the crease in his first start since allowing six goals against in his last start eight days ago against the Islanders.
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, but the Leafs hold the advantage over the Panthers in five out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Luke Schenn on the points of emphasis in this matchup against the Panthers:
Pretty dangerous team offensively with a lot of skill and speed off the rush. We just have to continue to play with the mindset of defense first.
Obviously, you don’t want to cheat the game against these guys. They are pretty good up and down the ice. They are pretty good at creating offense down low as well. We have to play tight defensively tonight.
Schenn on whether the team is starting to look ahead to round one against Tampa:
Your mind wanders there. We have a task at hand. You try to focus on the present. In saying that, we still have a handful of games left where we need to ramp our game up, too.
The one thing about Tampa is: They always find their game. They have so many good core guys who have done it before. They are a veteran group of guys with an unbelievable goalie. They know what it takes.
In saying that, there is time left and we need to elevate our game to feel comfortable going into a series feeling confident. Everyone is talking about what the picture looks like. There is no question we know how hard it is to be. But you have to build up to get there. It is still a process.
Morgan Rielly on replicating last week’s effort against this team:
When you look back at the game in Florida, there were lots of good things controlling play. We talked about it this morning — weak-side D being involved, controlling the puck through the neutral zone, no turnovers, and all of those different things that lead to success.
Justin Holl on whether the defense has become accustomed to 11 and 7:
The rotation is getting a little bit easier the more you play it and understand how it is going to work. That has been good.
I don’t know what the long-term plan will be, but I think everyone is good with it.
Sheldon Keefe on the dramatic swings between the home vs. away records for Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov:
I don’t know how applicable it might be beyond the regular season. In the playoffs, everything equalizes in terms of scheduling. Both teams are going through the same thing. But it’s something that has my attention.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#58 Michael Bunting – #28 Sam Lafferty
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#22 Jake McCabe – #78 T.J Brodie
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Luke Schenn
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#30 Matt Murray
Extras: Erik Gustafsson (unavailable), Conor Timmins
Injured: Noel Acciari, Ryan O’Reilly, Bobby McMann, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
Florida Panthers Projected Lines
#27 Eetu Luostarinen – #16 Aleksander Barkov – #10 Anthony Duclair
#23 Carter Verhaeghe – #15 Anton Lundell – #19 Matthew Tkachuk
#94 Ryan Lomberg – #12 Eric Staal – #13 Sam Reinhart
#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: #34 Alex Lyon
#72 Sergei Bobrovsky
Injured: Spencer Knight, Patric Hornqvist, Sam Bennett