For years now, the common belief has been that if the Maple Leafs could just get past the first round, the pressure would be off, the monkey would be off their back, and they would ride the momentum to a magical playoff run.
Well, so far, they won the first round and promptly find themselves in an 0-2 hole.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs came out buzzing in this game and the tone was set right away as Sheldon Keefe started a line featuring Matthew Knies – Ryan O’Reilly – Noel Acciari, who had a nondescript first shift but also didn’t allow the Florida Panthers to accomplish anything. The Auston Matthews line with Michael Bunting and Mitch Marner came on next and created a turnover on the forecheck.
A few shifts later, Luke Schenn created a turnover on a Panthers’ zone-entry attempt before Sam Lafferty picked up the puck in the neutral zone and wheeled wide on Radko Gudas to gain the offensive zone. Schenn put the puck back in deep and it made its way to the other side, where Morgan Rielly pinched to keep it in.
The puck went back to Schenn, who made a nice hesitation move to free himself up from the forward defending him, opening up some space to put a puck on net. David Kampf screened Sergei Bobrovsky and battled for the rebound as it popped out to Alex Kerfoot, who lifted it home.
FOOTER GETS US STARTED!! 🦶 pic.twitter.com/eFX6qC0pPQ
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) May 4, 2023
It was the type of Leafs goal we’ve become accustomed to so far in these playoffs: a point shot with traffic, and a puck ends up in the net. It’s a simple formula that worked to good effect here, but as the game went on, we didn’t see enough of it from the Leafs.
2. After scoring, the Panthers actually pushed back the next shift and ripped a shot off of Ilya Samsonov‘s mask. But the Leafs quickly went back to work pressuring the Panthers’ defense — particularly Michael Bunting, who was effective on the forecheck — and Auston Matthews had a good chance off the rush.
The fourth line went back out and once again went to work on the forecheck, pressuring the Panthers’ defense before goal-scorer Alex Kerfoot drew a penalty. The power play went out and went to work, scoring almost immediately.
When the Panthers pressed up top, the Leafs were quick to move it down low, where John Tavares and Ryan O’Reilly had a lot of space to make some plays. Mitch Marner then found ROR in the slot, where he ripped a shot on net, and Matthews and Tavares did well to be around the net to make sure the Panthers didn’t recover the puck for a clearance. The puck went back to Marner, who spotted ROR wide open on the backside for a one-timer blast past Bobrovsky.
ROR loves some good magic! 🪄 pic.twitter.com/KFvppc5YnT
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) May 4, 2023
Just over five minutes into the game, the Leafs were up 2-0, the building was rocking, and the Panthers — who were playing their fifth game in nine nights — looked like it was catching up to them.
3. We can’t expect every single power play to score, but up 2-0, the Leafs went to another man advantage shortly afterward, but this time they didn’t convert.
It wasn’t for a lack of chances. Ryan O’Reilly had another chance in the slot, John Tavares made a nice tip, and Matthews blasted a one-timer that just missed. Mitch Marner got all of a one-timer that struck Bobrovsky’s helmet. They created on the power play, but they couldn’t get the next one.
When the game returned to five-on-five, the Leafs kept the pressure up and even cranked up the physicality — namely, Noel Acciari laid a few good hits and Morgan Rielly buried Anthony Duclair.
Shortly after on a Florida dump-in, though, Timothy Liljegren made a really weak play on the boards for a giveaway. He wasn’t strong enough on the puck, and on an attempted reverse of some kind, the puck barely would have made it around to the other side. A weak play on the puck turned out to be a gift for the Panthers as Sam Reinhart made a great pass and Anton Lundell buried within seconds. It was a bang-bang play that Ilya Samsonov had little chance on.
4. That goal went to Florida’s legs a little bit, and despite the Leafs completely dominating to start the game, the Panthers closed out with a few chances to tie it up, most notably an Aaron Ekblad 2v1 save that was Ilya Samsonov‘s best of the evening.
Auston Matthews also had a chance in tight with some space off a turnover, and Ryan O’Reilly led a counterattack with numbers and the space to walk in and shoot; he decided to make a drop pass that didn’t even result in a shot on goal. At the other end, Nick Cousins walked in on a 3v2 and Gustav Forsling almost batted home the rebound.
It spoke to the flow of the game opening up with a trading of chances when the Leafs should’ve by now identified the formula for beating the Panthers: pucks in deep, traffic in front, work the walls, draw penalties, etc.
The Leafs did not end the period particularly crisply, either. They iced the puck multiple times and the Panthers were able to tilt the matchups in their favour in the process. At the end of the period, Cousins was able to walk in almost untouched through the neutral zone, gain the blue line, and pass it over to Matthew Tkachuk for a free shot.
5. The end of the first period was noteworthy, especially in the wake of Sheldon Keefe’s post-game comments that he was baffled by the start of the middle frame. It actually started the period before.
With Matthew Knies out, Keefe needed to adjust and decided to move William Nylander up to the left wing. Nylander has played there some before, but by and large, he has been a right winger, and that’s a tough ask to switch over mid-game.
The start of the second period was a mess. Ryan O’Reilly won the faceoff and Jake McCabe iced it under minimal pressure. ROR then won the defensive-zone faceoff and McCabe again fumbled the puck on the breakout, eventually resorting to batting it out. It made it up to Nylander, who instead of moving the puck up, tried to cut back and in, resulting in a turnover.
It’s a common play we’ve seen from the Leafs in the regular season that doesn’t work nearly as effectively in the playoffs: the regrouping and cutting back instead of simply moving the puck up ice. It’s also noteworthy that a few shifts later, Nylander did the exact same thing, but he was on his proper right side and it worked out fine.
Right after the turnover, Aleksander Barkov picked up the puck and snapped in a wrister from the top of the circle. The puck did look like it dipped a bit and was a slight knuckler, but ultimately, it’s a terrible goal to give up.
McCabe iced it for no reason then couldn’t break out, Nylander turned it over, and Ilya Samsonov let in a softy. It was a completely inexcusable start to a period at this juncture of the season.
6. There seemed to be a lot of talk about William Nylander‘s turnover that led to a terrible goal — which I get to some degree — but the more egregious error came right afterward. With the game now tied 2-2, it was a brand new hockey game, whether we liked it or not. The Leafs did deserve to be up at that point of the game, but they weren’t. That’s hockey.
On the next shift, Keefe put out the Auston Matthews line and Mitch Marner had the puck up the wall with some space to skate it out. With Sam Bennett pressuring him, instead of making sure he got the puck out as he was about to take a hit, Marner made an actual drop pass inside the Leafs’ blue line. Matthews was handcuffed by it and tried to flip the puck, but the turnover was already in motion. That threw the Leafs out of whack as Matthew Tkachuk found Gustav Forsling at the backdoor with a nice pass that he finished off.
There’s really not much to add here other than to say: Don’t make drop passes just inside your own blue line on a breakout at 5v5. It’s such a poor play that immediately led to a goal against, and all of a sudden, the Leafs — who, generally speaking, deserved to be up multiple goals at that point — were now trailing by one.
7. The team — and for that matter, the entire building — seemed shell-shocked at this point. It was the only period of the game when the Panthers actually carried the scoring chances for a spell.
Almost right after Florida took the lead, they had another shift where Eric Staal outmuscled Timothy Liljegren behind the goal line, creating another turnover that led to extended zone time for the Panthers. In his next shift, Liljegren put it up the wall for a turnover in the defensive zone as he was hearing the footsteps of the forecheck, leading to an Anton Lundell one-timer in the slot. Liljegren only played 12:35, which is shockingly low considering the Leafs were losing for over half of the game.
I should also note that the Panthers almost made it a two-goal lead a few other times, notably hitting the crossbar (it was probably a high stick, but they dominated the entire shift) as well as Colin White missing a backdoor play.
The Leafs did create a few chances as well, though. Namely, William Nylander hit the post and also set up John Tavares for a shot that deflected off Bobrovsky and struck the crossbar. At one point, Tavares fired a shot at the top of the zone that almost found the back of the net, too.
Right at the end of the period, instead of taking a hit and eating the puck in the dying seconds, Tavares turned it over and Tkachuk was on the verge of walking in, leading Auston Matthews to take a penalty. The Leafs killed it off to start the third, but it was a waste of two minutes in their attempt to come back.
8. In the third period, the Leafs came out aggressively and with some actual desperation in their game, but they couldn’t solve Bobrovsky. I don’t even need to outline all the chances; you can watch them below. He was exceptional.
What I would note, though, is that most of the scoring chances were directly against Bobrovsky — as in he was seeing the puck just fine and beating the Leafs’ shooters one-on-one.
Perhaps his luck in those one-on-ones will change, but what was the nature of the Leafs’ two goals in this game? A weak point shot, a screen, a won battle in front, a rebound, and a goal. Their power-play goal was off of a scramble in front where they fished the puck back, made a cross-ice pass with traffic in front, and scored a one-timer goal.
Against Tampa, what did the team do well offensively? Threw pucks on net, generated traffic, deflected shots, and collected rebounds, They have gotten away from that formula a bit through two games in part because the hockey is so wide open. There are chances to be had off the rush, but they need to make Bobrovsky’s life much more difficult with traffic.
9. While Matthew Knies left the game with an injury and didn’t even play five minutes, some of the ice-time totals in this game were eye-popping. Auston Matthews played 25:22, Mitch Marner played 24:46, and John Tavares played 21:48. Conversely, Calle Jarnkrok played 8:36, Alex Kerfoot played 12:58, and even Michael Bunting played just 15:11 despite the Leafs generally chasing the game while down to 11 forwards.
Through two games so far, this series has very much felt like Sheldon Keefe is up to his old tricks, loading up the top guys with huge minutes as if nobody else really matters. Bunting is the team’s best left winger, without question, with Knies out. 15:11 is a low ice-time total for him. Kerfoot scored and drew the penalty that led to the Leafs’ second goal. Jarnkrok was on the top line for large stretches of the season and produced a career year. I am not going to suggest Jarnkrok is having an amazing playoff, but there was nothing glaringly wrong about his game to play him so little and he probably isn’t going to accomplish much in such limited minutes. He needs to play some if the Leafs actually want him to produce.
Through two games in this series, the highest bottom-six forward in time on ice per game is Noel Acciari at 12:20, and again, in one of these games, the Leafs were playing with 11 forwards. This isn’t a formula for success long-term, but we’ve seen it year after year after year after year.
10. At the start of this game, there was a clear formula to win as the Leafs pressured a Panthers defense that can clearly be exploited, created all sorts of chances, drew penalties, and capitalized with traffic in front. The game then opened up some, and on all three Florida goals, there were self-inflicted wounds by Toronto.
I said after the first game that the Leafs can’t be trapped into this style of game, but so far, they are getting rope-a-doped in this series. There isn’t a better time to get out of Toronto — to reset, to play a more disciplined tight-checking style of hockey on the road, and to grind on the Panthers in the offensive zone, particularly in front of the net. There is a clear path to success in the series, and it’s up to the Leafs to commit to it.
There are no moral victories in the playoffs. It’s either get results or go home, and needless to say, the next game is absolutely critical to making sure it’s not the latter for the Leafs.