The Maple Leafs will need to keep their undefeated playoff road streak alive tonight to prevent the unthinkable scenario of falling 3-0 down to the Florida Panthers (6:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC/TBS).
The Leafs currently find themselves in a position they haven’t been in since the first-round series versus the Boston Bruins back in 2018 — two games behind — only this time they’re heading out on the road for a must-win Game 3.
If there are reasons for optimism, it starts with the resilience shown on the road in the Tampa series — they won all three away games — as well as the team’s ability to control the run of play and scoring chances in the series against the Panthers so far. They’ve been playing on offense far more, getting through the neutral zone far easier, and creating far more high-danger chances than they were at any point in the Lightning series.
The issue has been solving Sergei Bobrovsky often enough and avoiding the big mistakes that end up in the back of the Leafs‘ net. No team capitalizes on the opposition’s mistakes quicker and more readily than the Panthers; the puck management has to be focused and detailed over the 60 minutes or the game can get away quickly against this three-lines-deep Florida offense, as Toronto learned the hard way at the start of the second period of Game 2. Toronto is now in a position where there simply isn’t any margin for error.
The Maple Leafs will also need to adjust their lineup to the loss of Matthew Knies, which based on the practice lines, has included Alex Kerfoot moving up to Ryan O’Reilly’s wing, inserting Zach Aston-Reese into the fourth line, and leaving the top six the same. The thing about the 11 + 7 scenario, though, is that it’s not like the team is going to practice it outside of a game situation, so we have no confirmation as to whether Sheldon Keefe is taking this route tonight. This morning, Keefe was mum on any lineup changes besides Knies missing out due to his concussion.
The Leafs — who have scored just two goals in four straight games — could maybe use a little more offensive juice off the backend (Erik Gustafsson), and given ZAR’s limited impact and ice time in the playoffs so far (outside of the 5-1 goal in Game 2 against Tampa), it becomes a real consideration. There is also the matter of Timothy Liljegren’s very limited ice time in Game 2 (12:35) after his mistake on the 2-1 Florida goal at a time when the game seemed firmly in Toronto’s control.
Also noteworthy: The Leafs used 11+7 during a critical Game 6 on the road in the Tampa series to good effect.
12/6, 11/7 — whatever the case may be, this is pretty close to do-or-die tonight.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on his expectations for the team’s effort in a hugely important Game 3:
A good one, a detailed one, a focused one, and one not unlike the other night — certainly in terms of the way we started and played throughout the game.
The focus and detail throughout the game in terms of minimizing our mistakes and converting our chances are really the difference we are looking for.
In terms of the effort and approach — not a lot different than we had the other night.
Keefe on drawing on past experiences with adversity to help the team through the current one:
You don’t want to be too dramatic about the whole thing. The recent memory here is the last series. We didn’t go down by two, but we lose Game 1 at home and we need a major response through there. We got that.
We lost Game 5 at home, and you have to go get a major response. Those are the kinds of things that you have been through recently and have found your way through. We won all three road games in the previous series.
All of those kinds of things give our group confidence. Our group feels really good going into the game tonight. It doesn’t make the challenge any easier, but we remain optimistic and confident. We just have to go out and perform.
Keefe on the importance of making life harder on Sergei Bobrovsky in the Florida net:
They are making it harder to get to the net, so there is that, but there it is also a different type of series. The types of chances we have generated have been far different. We have had way more clean looks at the goalie in terms of shooter vs. goalie and a lot more chances on the rush.
There are a lot of chances there and a lot of shots where we don’t have an opportunity to get a guy to the net. We have to find ways to convert on those, but certainly, any other time, you want to make it as uncomfortable as you can.
The opposition and their goalie have a say in it, but it is certainly a focus.
Keefe on the team’s ability to generate a high volume of chances in the two losses:
We have gotten through the structure well. We have moved the puck well at different times. There have certainly been a number of times when they have made it hard on us. They forecheck well. We have gotten through that pretty significantly, too.
The neutral zone has been far easier to get through in this series than it was in the previous one. We are getting a lot more speed coming through the neutral zone. We have benefitted from that in terms of chance generation.
It hasn’t really gone in for us. That is another piece: making good on our chances. Whether is the rush game or the breakout-forecheck game, we have to look to win each area, especially in a game like tonight’s.
Keefe on whether he feels there is a long-standing beef between him and tonight’s official Wes McCauley:
Not at all. For me, the only way I would answer that is that officials don’t have any impact on our game and it is not our focus, but Wes has treated me like a true professional the whole time I have been in this league. I have been appreciative of that.
Paul Maurice on how the matchup game might change for the Panthers on home ice:
In our nine-game series, the matchup game hasn’t been prominent or important. Some of that is through injuries that we have had or other teams have had. There is not that major issue.
You have a tendency to get a little bit more positive feedback at home when you crack the bar or get a chance. You don’t feel as under siege as you do on the road sometimes. If you cross the red line, everyone is losing their minds.
It almost feels like now, in the new NHL, possibly the only advantage is the juice and maybe the bit of momentum after something good happens. You have an opportunity to sustain it the next shift.
Maurice on whether there is a concern that the time off might have cooled off the Panthers’ momentum:
It is human nature to find the 50 things that could go wrong when there is a routine change, which probably makes you smart that you can find those 50 things. It is probably why the species has survived. You are aware.
These aren’t necessarily related, but we had two days off in the Boston series and won the next three games. Our routine is identical daily. We have a 6:30 game setup, a 3:30 game setup, a 7:30… We just do the same damn thing, and we will play the game.
Maurice on whether the rest period could be an advantage for the Panthers given the team played five games in nine nights before the break:
I can’t speak for the other team, but let’s say our gas tank might have been half full after Game 2. They had two days off before, so maybe they were at three-quarters of a tank. Both teams get to fill up the tank. They’re even.
I don’t think there is an advantage to us over them. We just kind of get to the same starting point.
I find there is more aberration to routines during the regular season. You have way more time-zone travel. You have different start times. It is a little bit different in the West when they start running nine o’clock game times at night — that is unusual — but in the East, there are not a lot of things you haven’t dealt with in a series.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #90 Ryan O’Reilly – #52 Noel Acciari
#64 David Kämpf – #28 Sam Lafferty
#22 Jake McCabe – #78 TJ Brodie
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Luke Schenn
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#56 Erik Gustafsson
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll
Scratched: Timothy Liljegren, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Aston-Reese
Injured: Matthew Knies, 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