The Maple Leafs live to fight another day.
There was so much talk about the 0-3 deficit the past few days, which — from a media and fan perspective — is understandable. If you’re the team, though, all you can do is win a game and get this series back to Toronto.
They just did that.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs made some subtle changes for this game. They reunited the Calle Jarnkrok – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner line as well as the Alex Kerfoot – John Tavares – William Nylander line. Michael Bunting was pushed down to the third line with Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari.
On defense, Erik Gustafsson sat and TJ Brodie paired back up with Justin Holl. A lot of people hated the move, but there are a few things I like about it. Namely, Brodie is back on his strong side with this pairing, and Holl has generally been fine — as much as people hate to admit it — when he plays with a partner who can lead his pairing. As Mark Giordano has struggled, so has Holl — just like with Jake Muzzin last season and when he plays with players like Jake McCabe who can’t drive a pairing.
Holl, by the way, led the entire defense in time on ice in this game as the Leafs played their best defensive game of the playoffs. Brodie was second.
The matchups were what we have become accustomed to as Matthews went up against Barkov, but what we are seeing with the other two is that Keefe wants the Tavares line against the Anton Lundell third line and ROR against the Bennett-Tkachuk line. You can’t always get that matchup, though, and the Tavares line held up. Now the Leafs are going home with the last change.
2. The first period felt tentative from the Leafs to start. The Panthers had a 2v1 roughly 20 seconds into the game. Marc Staal ripped one off of Woll’s shoulder. The John Tavares–William Nylander line went out and settled things down with an offensive-zone shift. As the period went on, the Leafs grew into the game. Matthews went on a 2v1 and also had another chance to jam one into the net.
Under Keefe, the Leafs have never really been a team that starts a game with their hair on fire. They are not the Pat Quinn Leafs who flipped pucks in deep, wound up, and took some runs at the other team. They often, if anything, sort of dip their toe into the game and settle into it; their second period was their best this season.
Through 20 minutes, shots were just 7-6 for Florida, who had a power play, too. It was a quiet period as the Leafs simply checked and kept everything simple.
3. At one point, it felt like it would never happen again, but in the second period, the Leafs finally went to a power play. Lo and behold, they scored a power-play goal.
To be honest, the power play itself was a bit of a mess. The top unit couldn’t set up the zone properly and the closest they came to creating anything was when Morgan Rielly tried to go end-to-end. When they did finally gain the zone, Mitch Marner tried skating backward with the puck around the top of the zone, where it was poked off him for a clear.
Out came the second unit with a minute left on the power play, and they scored on a broken play. This time, Marner lugged the puck up ice and passed it off to Michael Bunting to gain the zone. As Bunting tried to rim a puck around the boards to set it up, it ricocheted off the ref and found William Nylander in front of the net all alone. Nylander’s backhand shot hit the post, bounced back off Bobrovsky, and trickled in.
WILLY STYLES!! 😎 pic.twitter.com/YMKJ2Ieufj
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) May 11, 2023
It felt like some good karma for the player who has been creating the most offense in this series but was battling some bad luck when it came to finishing. There was nothing but good luck on this one, though — a fortunate bounce to get the puck in the first place and another fortunate bounce off the post, off Bobrovsky, and in. They all count the same, though.
4. After they scored, the Leafs settled down a bit and started creating more offensively. John Tavares made a nice play where he cut in through the offensive zone and took the puck to the net, trying to beat Bobrovsky short side. He also went on a mini breakaway later in the period. Michael Bunting had a chance all alone with Bobrovsky, and David Kampf had some rebound chances in front. ROR had a good backhand chance off the rush, too.
The common theme, though, was that Bobrovsky was seeing the puck. He is locked in right now, and it is very difficult to rip a puck by him if he can see it cleanly.
Florida’s best chance might have been a Sam Bennett play where he walked in with some space and Luke Schenn laid out to block it. It was a good second period from a Leafs team that has strangely struggled in the second period in this series.
5. In the third period, the Leafs came out and slowed the game right down. It was exactly what we wanted to see. The neutral zone was a slog for Florida to get through and the Leafs gave up nothing off the rush. The only thing Florida could really muster offensively was working it to the point and trying to send pucks through traffic.
To the Leafs’ credit, they made that very difficult for Florida to do that. Only four players on the Leafs didn’t record a shot block in this game. The Panthers mustered 25 shots on net overall (on 43 shot attempts). Everything was coming from the perimeter:
25 shots on net for the Panthers, 19 from the perimeter. The Leafs hadn't held the Panthers to fewer than 14 slot shots in the any of the 3 previous games – 6 tonight. Impressive defensive effort.
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) May 11, 2023
To start this period, it was important that the Leafs did not let the Panthers dictate the pace of the game. Florida did not look like an aggressive, fast forechecking team. They looked like a team finding it difficult to get through the neutral zone and to create offense.
6. In the first half of the third period as the Leafs locked it down, they were generally creating offense off counterattacks. There were a few shifts where they controlled some zone time, though, and burned some clock in the offensive zone. On one play, Mitch Marner found Auston Matthews in the slot with a nice behind-the-back pass and Matthews couldn’t bury it. A few minutes later, the Leafs extended the lead.
Marner grabbed the puck in his own zone and skated it through traffic before ringing a pass around the far side boards as the Leafs established some zone time with Ryan O’Reilly joining Matthews and Marner for a shift. Before the goal, Timothy Liljegren stepped up and kept the puck in on Eric Staal (Liljegren was fourth among Leafs defensemen in time on ice) before taking possession and passing it to Marner behind the net.
We then saw from the Leafs (twice) what we have been emphasizing literally the entire series. ROR and Matthews went to the net. The original pass didn’t work, but they were there battling for space and the puck, and Florida shot it out of traffic. The Leafs got it back, and Marner had some time and space at the point as he looked up and placed a shot through traffic that found the back of the net.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) May 11, 2023
Matthews was in the high slot, but more importantly, ROR was right on top of the crease. Bobrovsky saw nothing. This is how you make his life difficult. It wasn’t an amazing shot and it certainly wasn’t a bomb, but there was traffic and it made it through. More of that.
7. Down two, the Panthers made a push as expected. On an offensive-zone cycle, the puck made its way to Marc Staal and Alex Kerfoot laid out to block the shot. Staal tried stepping around him and was tripped up, sending Florida to the power play.
The Leafs did a good job to start the penalty kill, and at one point, it looked like Mitch Marner might score a shorthanded goal. But the Panthers set it up finally, Bennett had the puck on the half-wall, and the Leafs stepped up on the shooting threat. It led to a tic-tac-toe goal as he passed it down to Matthew Tkachuk, who immediately one-touched it to Sam Reinhart in the slot.
Joseph Woll did well to save the initial shot, but it trickled by him, and Reinhart dove and poked the puck in. You would like to see Justin Holl and David Kampf do a better job blocking that passing lane and getting a stick on Reinhart so he can’t get the shot off. Both were caught watching the puck instead of getting to their spots on time. Kampf was defending nobody, and Holl was slow coming out of the corner to get back to the front of the net.
Just like that, it was a one-goal game, and Sheldon Keefe called a timeout. It was an underrated moment in the game. He settled everything down. The crowd calmed down some, and while the team didn’t look like the game was getting away from them at that point, he left nothing to chance.
8. With just under two minutes left, Luke Schenn saved the game. Carter Verhaeghe had the puck with space in the slot after Morgan Rielly over-committed on the boards, and Verhaeghe — a 40+ goal scorer — walked in and sold his shot before faking it in an attempt to step around Schenn and Woll. Schenn went down and reached out to whack the puck off of him. If Verhaeghe broke through, it’s an empty net for a goal and a tie game. I have no idea what happens if he scores there, but it would have been a tough play to rebound from.
Afterward, the Leafs really did lock it down. Florida created nothing of note. One thing the Leafs did — which is something Ron Wilson used to have his Leafs teams do — is stack up three or four players above their blue line with a defenseman hanging back in the slot as the other team tries to gain the zone. The Leafs forced a dump-in on Sam Bennett, who flipped it in the air over there. TJ Brodie simply caught it, put it down, and the puck went out.
It is a great strategy and really difficult for opponents to break. The defenseman is already back there to retrieve the puck, and you’re stacking up too many players for the other team to skate through.
Auston Matthews made a notable shot block as well when the Panthers did eventually gain the zone. Noel Acciari was on with Matthews and Mitch Marner at the very end, but Ryan O’Reilly, David Kampf, and Alex Kerfoot also helped close the game. Rielly and Jake McCabe ended the game, but Brodie and Holl were vital in the final two minutes as well.
9. The game ended with fireworks, and to be honest, it was great to see. Against Tampa, there was a heated scrum due to the Morgan Rielly – Brayden Point incident. It amped up the heat and intensity of the series. The start of this series against Florida, though, has really been anything but.
The first two games felt like regular season games. There was hardly anything in the games in terms of bad blood. I think this benefits the Leafs. They are the better team on paper, and there needs to be a little “don’t poke the bear” here.
Earlier in the game, the response, or lack thereof, after Radko Gudas’ hit on David Kampf was weak. It was a targeted, late hit. The argument will be that they didn’t want to take a penalty; there already was one called on the play, though. If anything, with the way the league’s officiating works, it was an opportunity to even it up.
At the end of the game, Montour threw a big hit as time was expiring, and Jake McCabe and Noel Acciari came flying in. They had no time for it.
This series badly needed some genuine animosity. There were some big hits in the early game — and the Matthews Knies injury — but there wasn’t much hate. The Leafs have a long way to go down 3-1, but it’s on now.
10. That’s six straight games of scoring two goals for the Leafs. They have yet to score more than two in this series. The Leafs won 2-1 in this one, but you can’t believe that you’ll keep winning 2-1 games. There is no margin for error at that rate. You would like to think they will break through offensively. This is the kind of grind-it-out win that you hope leads to an offensive explosion next.
The Leafs are too talented to keep scoring two goals each night. Power plays would help, of course, but so would shots on net. There were a number of times — especially in the first half of the game — where their defense, in particular, hesitated to shoot pucks through traffic and on net. Morgan Rielly and Justin Holl were the only two defensemen to register shots on net. The eventual game-winner was a point shot by a forward. They haven’t been able to do it consistently — and some credit goes to the Panthers for blocking shots and lanes — but the Leafs are also passing on opportunities to get pucks through.
Toronto did well to clog up the neutral zone, slow up the Panthers’ forecheck, and get pucks out. Joseph Woll was calm, cool, and collected. He played exceptionally well, and there is a quiet confidence emanating from him.
There are lots of good things that the Leafs accomplished on the defensive side of the puck to slow the game down and get away from the pond hockey style. The next step going into Game 5 is rediscovering their offense. They are due.