With the job done against a formidable Lightning team, the Maple Leafs enter uncharted territory as they begin round two on home ice against a feisty, offensively-skilled Panthers team just two days removed from their stunning Game 7 OT win over the regular-season champs (7:00 p.m EST, Sportsnet/CBC/ESPN)
With all the talk of first-round demons, collapses, and missed opportunities finally behind the Maple Leafs and their fan base, it’s time to settle into the nitty-gritty of what should be a high-flying, intense second-round matchup between the Leafs and Panthers.
With the offensive prowess of both these teams, it was largely defense that made the ultimate difference between the Leafs and Panthers in the regular season standings, and it could/should be a factor that allows Toronto to come out ahead in this series.
That said, there were large aspects of their play in the own half which didn’t come together for the Leafs against the Lightning. With Timothy Liljegren (who remains in tonight) and Erik Gustafsson in the Game 6 lineup, it appeared to help to have a few more above-average puck movers in the mix, but as a team, they’re going to need to move the puck out of their zone quicker and establish a possession game that lives up to their regular-season standards.
Toronto only controlled 44.5% of shot attempts against Tampa despite finishing closer to even in expected goals. The ability to diffuse the Panthers’ forecheck and exit the zone efficiently will be a critical determining factor in this second-round series; Florida created the second-most goals off turnovers in the NHL this season (per Sportsnet).
The Leafs will return to 12 forwards tonight, with Aston-Reese returning to Kampf’s side, only this time with Alex Kerfoot completing the unit and Sam Lafferty sitting out. Perhaps Kerfoot’s ability to help with the transition piece will improve the fourth line’s paltry possession numbers from round one in what should be a “skating” series vs. Florida; the fourth line wasn’t much of a factor in the first round and at times a liability after a strong finish to the regular season.
The Leafs’ lineup tonight looks very close to what many of us might have expected Sheldon Keefe to go with in advance of Game 6 against Tampa. Timothy Liljegren will occupy his familiar spot next to veteran Mark Giordano, while Erik Gustafsson will head back to the press box after playing just 7:38 on Saturday in the 11/7 setup. Zach Aston-Reese will return after a rough first round in place of Gustafsson.
On the Panthers’ side, the goaltending decision will be the biggest factor to watch:
Alex Lyon was the first goalie off the ice at #FlaPanthers morning skate before Game 1 in Toronto.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 2, 2023
Alex Lyon’s select numbers as a backup in Philadelphia and Carolina never impressed, but his surge late in the regular season was enough to make him the Game 1 starter. Lyon stopped 65-of-71 shots in games 1-3, with the Panthers’ 4-2 loss in their first home game of the series serving as the catalyst for the switch to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky won three of four games in the series despite a .891 SV%.
There is also some talk, by way of the Florida beat reporters covering the series, that the Panthers’ fourth line could look different tonight. Zach Dalpe played the last four games of the series on the bottom line, but he barely saw seven minutes of ice time in the final three.
Toronto native Givani Smith, who’s been more of a regular in Florida’s lineup this season, could replace Dalpe. Smith’s physical edge might be something Paul Maurice is looking for after the loss of Ryan Lomberg, who is out long-term due to injury.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the state of his team’s game entering the second round and the challenge against the Panthers:
Our game should be in order. But with that being said, you’ve got a team coming in and riding the high of a Game 7. I think, historically speaking, these types of games tend to favour the team coming off of the Game 7, so we’ve got that to contend with.
[We’re facing] a team that’s feeling really good as they should be because of the win the other night. They probably didn’t have much time to come down off of that, but we have, so we’ve got to make sure we’re able to ramp back up.
Our focus is to get off to a good start here, and we certainly did not do that in round one. There’s more than enough things for us to focus on here tonight.
Keefe on Sam Bennett’s effect on the lineup and chemistry with Tkachuk:
For me, them getting [Bennett] back into their group changes things dramatically in terms of giving them that extra center. With Bennett and Tkachuk, in particular, both players are relentless and don’t give you a second to rest or relax. It’s going to be a real challenge to handle those guys, and that’s to say nothing of the others they have.
Keefe on Jake McCabe’s first playoff series:
I think he grew a lot in the series. It seemed to me that, early on, he was adjusting to playoff hockey a little bit, but I think he got better and better each game. When you look back on it, some of the numbers maybe don’t look too kind to him in a lot of ways.
One thing that stands out — especially knowing how tough his matchups were — was that defensively he didn’t give up a lot. There wasn’t a lot of offense; there wasn’t a lot going on for him in allowing us to push the puck up ice as it was a struggle for our team in a lot of ways.
Defensively, he didn’t crack, he was physically imposing, and he asserted himself in the series that way. I think as the series goes on, it can be an advantage for our team. He’s a guy who has a lot of confidence in who he is and how he plays. He’s not afraid of anything out there. The more experience he gets in the playoffs, I think he’ll just continue to grow and get better.
Paul Maurice on Matthew Tkachuk’s impact in the playoffs:
Being an agitator is not where he starts his game. There’s a maturity to this young man’s game. He’s a performer and a producer. He’s also got an edge to him, and he’s not afraid to go to tough places. What is it about him? I don’t know the answer to that. If you knew, you’d just have 20 of them and say, “Hey, do this.”
He’s an elite performer. His hands are off the charts good. They’re different. They’re a different set of hands.
Maurice on the similarities between the Bruins and the Leafs:
In some ways, it’s very similar. We’d almost view them as the same team in some of their structure. They collapse heavily to the net-front in their own end, they’re dynamic off the rush, and they make plays off the rush.
The new thing for Toronto over the last couple of years is they get net front [in the offensive zone]. In terms of how they move the puck and how they defend, a lot of that is similar. The difference is there’s a different speed element [with Toronto]. There’s a different kind of offencs they create with the shot tips and some of the creative ways they get a puck through somebody.
Boston is indirect with more pucks and will put more chips into holes, [whereas] these guys will put it through your feet, off your stick… They have a pretty nifty set of hands. Other than that, they have dominant centers and veteran centers. There’s a lot of similarities.
John Tavares on the Panthers and their performance in round one:
There weren’t hanging on by any means. They showed a tremendous amount of resiliency and belief in themselves. They played aggressively on their toes and really pushed Boston, fought right to the end, and earned the result. The way they forechecked and the way they played as a unit really stood out to us.
[We need to] understand the challenge that presents and the way their top players played really well and elevated their games. They made big plays in critical moment, which is what the playoffs are about, so we understand that challenge. We’ll have to be ready from puck drop tonight.
Tavares on getting the first-round monkey off their back:
We want it to push us forward. It’s just one step of four that we’re trying to make here in the playoffs. Obviously, it was a long time coming for us, so it was great to come through, but really, it’s great that we get the challenge of the second step now and the opportunity to continue our season.
Every team that has moved on, they feel good about where they’re at and what they’re able to do with how difficult it is to win a series in the playoffs. That’s the excitement of turning the page here.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#23 Matthew Knies – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#58 Michael Bunting – #90 Ryan O’Reilly – #52 Noel Acciari
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#22 Jake McCabe – #78 TJ Brodie
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Luke Schenn
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll
Scratched: Erik Gustafsson, Justin Holl, Sam Lafferty, Wayne Simmonds
Injured: Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin
Florida Panthers Projected Lines
#23 Carter Verhaeghe – #16 Aleksander Barkov – #10 Anthony Duclair
#21 Nick Cousins – #9 Sam Bennett – #19 Matthew Tkachuk
#27 Eetu Luostarinen – #15 Anton Lundell – #13 Sam Reinhart
#6 Colin White – #15 Eric Staal – #22 Zach Dalpe
#42 Gustav Forsling – #5 Aaron Ekblad
#18 Marc Staal – #62 Brandon Montour
#28 Josh Mahura – #7 Radko Gudas
#72 Sergei Bobrovsky
#34 Alex Lyon
Injured: Spencer Knight, Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Lomberg