It’s the first meeting between the Panthers and the Maple Leafs since Toronto was eliminated from round two of the 2023 playoffs in Game 5 OT last May (7:00 p.m. EST, TSN4).

Our own Alex Drain sets the stage for the Florida Panthers entering the 2023-24 season:

The Florida Panthers finally made a deep run in the playoffs, winning the Eastern Conference and making the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in franchise history. Their Cinderella story was a massive moment for the once-dormant franchise and a validation for Bill Zito’s leadership, but the run did not come without a cost. The bruising, physical style the Panthers played took its toll on the roster and its health as Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad both underwent offseason surgeries that will put them out for the first couple months of the season. At forward, Sam Bennett will miss a couple of weeks as well.

These aren’t necessarily catastrophic ailments, but Florida appears to be poorly equipped to handle injuries to Montour and Ekblad, their two best defenders. Their third-best defender from last season was arguably Radko Gudas, who signed in Anaheim. Lots of pressure then falls on their final top-four defenseman from 2022-23, Gustav Forsling, to carry weight for the entire team.

The remaining depth chart is not pretty. Josh Mahura has quietly been very good in third-pair minutes, but he will now likely be forced to play much higher in the lineup. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the definition of a reclamation project at age 32 in the wake of foot injuries, while the likes of Dmitry Kulikov, Mike Reilly, and Niko Mikkola have been either third-pair or AHL defensemen in recent years but will now be thrust into larger roles, too.

Florida’s defensive depth chart sans Montour and Ekblad is clearly the worst of any team with the hope of winning the Stanley Cup. Similar to Tampa, the Panthers have to hope to survive the first month or two of the season. Thankfully, they do have a phenomenal forward line chart that should create tons of offense to compensate for the defensive problems, but it is worth remembering that this team was very healthy last regular season and they still nearly missed the playoffs. Any reduction in their level of play due to injuries could sink them below the playoff line as teams like Buffalo and Ottawa attempt to leapfrog them.

Of course, another unknown that’s worth mentioning is Sergei Bobrovsky, the hero of Florida’s long playoff run. Bobrovsky has not been great in the regular season for several years, and it’s hard to project him for this season. He’s now 35 years old with a lot of miles on his tires. He is inside the top 50 most games played all time by an NHL goalie and is coming off a season where he just played 69 games between the regular season and playoffs.

Can Bobrovsky give them the needed goaltending to survive a creaky defense and will he be healthy? If not, the responsibility falls to largely untested Anthony Stolarz, who begins the season as the backup. We know Florida can score goals, but whether they can overcome the injuries and fatigue from the spring to prevent enough goals is the bigger story.

On the Leafs‘ side of the matchup, 13 goals against in three games — including two matchups against teams very likely to be on the outside of the playoff picture — is not the start they were looking for from a defensive standpoint.

This is a real test for head coach Sheldon Keefe; he’s got the task of integrating six new forwards (of which two are rookies and another two aren’t exactly known for their defensive prowess) and one defensively-porous, offensively-gifted defenseman into the lineup while maintaining the high standard of five-man defensive structure the team has successfully lived up to for the past two seasons. Perhaps this five-game road trip falls at just the right time, with a couple of opponents (Florida & Tampa) on the docket that should also hopefully sharpen the team’s focus.

Even without Sam Bennett or the offensive presence of Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad on the blue line, this is a Panthers team that can hurt you in transition, which is exactly where the Leafs have been particularly vulnerable to start the new season.  Smarter pinching, and maintaining a disciplined F3, are so important to limit rush opportunity against this opponent.

A few more saves would also certainly go a long way as the kinks are worked out. Tonight’s starter, Ilya Samsonov, is still looking for a 60-minute effort to hang his hat on. Neither of his final two preseason appearances was particularly sharp, and he’s now allowed nine goals in two starts so far in the regular season.

Game Day Quotes

Panthers head coach Paul Maurice on the Leafs vs. Panthers matchup:

I think rivalries are built in the playoffs. There is no way to play a series with Toronto and not have it be an event, right? There is so much coverage and scrutiny on everything.

There will be an extra energy in this for us with Toronto, Boston, and Carolina. It will be a different year in those series for sure.

Maurice on what his team can learn from the series last spring in order to shut down Auston Matthews:

I don’t think we ever talk about being able to. The numbers suggest nobody can over a period of time. He is going to get his. He is going to drive his play.

We have players on our team that need to get theirs. You match it as much as you can. You do your best to shut it down, but it can’t be your sole focus. We have players here who need to get onto offense and do the same thing.

Maurice on his team’s 1-2-0 start:

I am all right with where we are at. I liked our game in Minnesota as much or maybe more than the [win] against New Jersey. I didn’t care for our second period in Winnipeg, but you are up against three playoff teams from last year. Two of them are home openers. It is more how you play and if you have faith in how you play. I do. I am comfortable with where we are at.

Maurice on whether the team chemistry is now strong enough after last season plus playoffs to withstand the early injury adversity:

It’s three games. It’s not a big enough sample. But last year, I would say, “I like parts of our game.” I am far more comfortable with where our game is now with some of the work ethic and some of the compete. That is probably where the chemistry is best. The new guys who have come in are just starting to learn how to work as hard as the other guys.

There are three drivers out of our lineup, but we can still compete now. I have some confidence that we can compete. We play six of our first eight games against playoff teams from last year. It is a good test for us.

Sheldon Keefe on whether the first game of the season against the Panthers brings a little more juice after last year’s playoff series:

It is a regular-season game, so I don’t think much of that is at play — at least not for me. Everybody is individual in that sense.

Any time you have been through a playoff series, it does add a little bit more for sure, but right now, in the early going of the season, we have to really be focused on our own game, being as prepared as possible, and continuing to take positive steps a more complete game, which we haven’t had yet.

We have to keep the focus on us, but we certainly have a lot of respect for the opposition. We know it is going to be a challenge. It is our first road game.

Keefe on moving Matthew Knies onto Tavares and Nylander’s line:

Going out on the road, I wanted to rejig some things. That was it. I think Knies has a lot more to offer us as well.

The change previously was to have Domi and Jarnkrok on different lines for different reasons. Having them together in terms of how their skill sets can play off of one another, with Jarny’s stabilizing presence defensively, I think makes sense to give it a try going out on the road.

Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Panthers (2022-23)

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#23 Matthew Knies – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#11 Max Domi – #39 Fraser Minten – #19 Calle Jarnkrok
#18 Noah Gregor – #64 David Kampf – #75 Ryan Reaves

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#22 Jake McCabe – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 John Klingberg

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll

Scratched: Simon Benoit
Injured: Conor Timmins

Florida Panthers Projected Lines

#17 Evan Rodrigues – #16 Aleksander Barkov – #13 Sam Reinhart
#23 Carter Verhaeghe – #27 Eetu Luostarinen – #19 Matthew Tkachuk
#21 Nick Cousins – #15 Anton Lundell – #24 Justin Sourdif
#94 Ryan Lomberg – #82 Kevin Stenlund – #18 Steven Lorentz

#42 Gustav Forsling – #91 Oliver Ekman-Larsson
#77 Niko Mikkola – #7 Dmitry Kulikov
#28 Josh Mahura – #26 Uvis Balinskis

Starter: #72 Sergei Bobrovsky
#41 Anthony Stolarz

Injured: Brandon Montour, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Bennett