A wild night in the Eastern Conference playoff race resulted in the Maple Leafs drawing the Boston Bruins in the first round.

We all know about the psychology of the Leafs vs. Bruins playoff history, the season series between the teams (4-0 Bruins), Boston’s studs on defense (Charlie McAvoy + Hampus Lindholm), their strength in goal (Linus Ullmark + Jeremy Swayman), and David Pastrnak’s career splits against the Leafs (19 goals, 36 points in 29 games). But it’s also Zacha – Coyle – Geekie down the middle for Boston instead of Barkov – Bennett – Lundell for Florida.

Just a few weeks ago, Boston’s head coach Jim Montgomery said, “We’re not ready for the playoffs,” following a loss to Philadelphia (if you’re a Leafs fan seeking some reassurance, read this doom-and-gloom Reddit thread revealing the average Bruins fans’ mindset at that time). While the Bruins went 5-1-0 after the coach’s call-out, they lost three of their last four to close the regular season (10-7-0 since the trade deadline).

To argue there was a clearly preferred matchup here seems unfounded. There is not much separating these teams (FLA, BOS, TOR), and after they slayed the Lightning dragon last spring, maybe it’s exactly what the Leafs need this year. Bring on Boston.

Your game in 10:

1.    The Leafs got off to a great start to this game that belied the end result. Mitch Marner was feeling it early as he weaved through the Panthers’ defense and created a great scoring chance on his first shift of the game. With Max Domi out of the lineup and Marner back in his most familiar spot next to Auston Matthews, usually an early shift like that from Marner is a promising sign of some magic to come from the pair (and possibly Matthews’ 70th, in this particular case).

Tyler Bertuzzi drew an early penalty crashing the net for a rebound. 20 seconds into the power play, the Leafs were on the board, with Marner sifting a shot from the perimeter to which John Tavares applied the slightest of deflections to make it 1-0.

The Leafs controlled play, got out to an early lead, and held a 7-2 shot advantage through the first five minutes. It’s hard to ask for a better road start against a top team.

2.   The Leafs’ recent win over Florida in Toronto was not a night particularly high on physical intensity despite the hype around the matchup. Early on tonight, there was a little more message-sending and gamesmanship (the assumption at the time was these two teams were likely round-one opponents).

Matthew Tkachuk took a few shots at John Tavares in front of the Leafs’ bench and Simon Benoit jumped into the scrum, picking up the extra penalty in the skirmish. The calls by the officials on the play were an ominous sign as far as the rest of the game was concerned; Tavares was not an equal participant to Tkachuk in the rough stuff by any stretch, but he got a roughing penalty. Benoit didn’t really throw a punch at any point or go overboard — he pushed Tkachuk away from actively punching his captain, which is pretty standard. How the Leafs got the extra two here was hard to fathom. Fortunately, the Leafs got the kill.

3.   The Leafs’ strong first period continued when, just after the midway point, Noah Gregor put the Leafs up by two after a strong third-line shift. Pontus Holmberg applied good pressure on the forecheck and went straight to the front of the net afterward. Gregor picked up the loose puck and threw a puck toward the net from just inside the blue line, which Stolarz could not track through an effective screen by Holmberg.

The physicality picked up again afterward when Jake McCabe got into a slashing match with Evan Rodrigues. Despite Tkachuk jumping in as the third man into the scrum — a similar scenario to what occurred earlier in the period, leading to a Benoit roughing call — Tkachuk escaped unpenalized. The officials then tabbed Bertuzzi for an extra slash in the scrum. The referees failed to set a consistent standard in tonight’s game, to put it mildly, and it really put a damper on what started as a competitively intense, physical, high-paced contest.

In the opening 20 minutes, the Leafs outshot the Panthers 14-6, led 2-0, and were credited with 3.72 xGF over all situations. Unlike their recent games at home vs. Detroit and New Jersey where they opened up 1-0 leads and then got carried away, they built a lead and gave Florida very little (one strange Matthews giveaway in his own zone aside).

4.   The game flipped on its head on the second period, beginning with the dreaded goal inside 30 seconds of a period starting. This was a self-inflicted wound.

Morgan Rielly initially committed a sloppy giveaway on the breakout, but the Leafs should’ve still been fine. Ilya Lyubushkin misread the play and unnecessarily stepped up in the neutral zone, scattering the Leafs’ structure off the entry and creating a fast-developing odd-man situation. Although Joseph Woll made the initial save on a wobbling shot from Carter Verhaeghe, the rebound placement off the blocker wasn’t ideal, and Verhaeghe slipped the stick check of Matthews in front to bury the second opportunity.

The Leafs pushed back with a few good shifts from the bottom-six forwards, including a great one from the fourth line where Ryan Reaves banged some bodies and they ground on the Panthers on the cycle for a long spell. At the beginning of the shift, David Kampf and Connor Dewar created a breakaway for Morgan Rielly, who was stopped blocker-side by Stolarz.

Rielly had a few big chances offensively tonight but failed to cash in. As the game wore on, he made some puzzling decisions with and without the puck en route to a big dash in the plus/minus column. He’s always been at his best when it matters (playoff time), and there is no sense in jumping on him for a sloppy game #81, assuming that will remain the case this spring, but this wasn’t his sharpest night at the office.

It’s easy to look at the shot total in the second period (29-4) and assume it was a travesty from beginning to end, but the Leafs’ initial response after Florida’s 2-1 goal was quite positive. With around 16 minutes left in the second, shots were 16-8 and it really should’ve been 3-1 Toronto.

5.   The tide turned significantly at the end of a shift of extended zone pressure from the Matthews line, who followed up the great fourth-line sequence. A goalie interference penalty was called on Tyler Bertuzzi, who attempted to skate between Stolarz and his net. The contact perhaps wasn’t as substantial as Stolarz made it appear, but it was a risky maneuver from Bertuzzi, and there was some contact made.

The Leafs were nearly done with the kill when Joel Edmundson was handed an interference penalty on Sam Bennett right at the end of it. When Bennett chipped it in deep and attempted his retrieval, Edmundson ran the kind of off-the-puck pick play on a forechecker we see defenders execute all the time; usually, it’s about running a form of “legal” interference without latching onto the attacking player for too long or getting overzealous with the contact. Whether Edmundson overstepped is debatable on this play, but Bennett definitely sold the call.

6.   By this point, the Leafs should be well and truly familiar with Florida’s renowned gamesmanship, which played a major role in this game tonight several times.

There was a play later in the game—at 4-2 in the third period—when Matthew Tkachuk did most of the work to knock off the net with a loose puck available and the Florida net empty, preventing a possible goal. John Tavares immediately skated away from the incident without a peep while Tkachuk gabbed and gesticulated at the refs in his own defense.

Those are the kinds of moments when making your case and selling a call are necessary in this league. Influencing the officials’ perception of events as best you can is a part of the game, and it’s something the Leafs—led by their captain—have to embrace against teams such as Florida (and Boston), especially.

7.  The Leafs’ PK was hanging tough, but six minutes of PK time in the period, including four minutes consecutively, seemed to really breathe life into Florida’s game and suck the life out of Toronto’s.

While the PK should feel good about the six-for-six night, it did lose six of seven draws on the PK in the middle frame. All the shorthanded time made for a lot of puck time Florida/a lot of time without the puck for the Leafs, and a lot of time on the bench for some of the Leafs’ top players.

In the second period, Florida won 68% of the draws overall. The Leafs could not find a way to dig in, win a few more battles, and reverse the momentum for the remainder of the middle frame, which ended at 29-4 in shots on goal and 3.68-0.51 in expected goals.

8.   The Panthers took the lead with two goals within 10 seconds of each other. The first was a nice tip play by Sam Bennett on a Florida point shot where Rielly was a little too puck-focused instead of engaging Bennett on the way by and disrupting his path/stick.

Immediately afterward, Joel Edmundson was not able to handle a rolling puck in his own zone, and Aleksander Barkov picked his pocket, creating a rebound that was cashed in by Sam Reinhart, with Timothy Liljegren caught in between on the play at the back post.

Before exiting the lineup a second time due to injury, Edmundson struggled in his initial return from his first injury, losing the puck in his feet a fair bit and lacking his timing and sharpness; he could use more reps to shake the rust off of his game, and there is only one game left in the regular season to do it. It seems like a no-brainer to include Edmundson among the six or seven D dressed in the lineup tomorrow while giving a few others with a lot of miles/wear and tear on their bodies (Jake McCabe comes to mind) a night off.

9.   The 4-2 dagger goal with six minutes remaining came on a rough shift from the Knies – Tavares – Nylander line. A couple of times, William Nylander didn’t make a solid play on the puck on the half wall to get it out after Tavares initially won a defensive-zone draw, and the line was then scrambling around the defensive zone. Montour seeing-eye knuckled one in from the point to make it a two-goal Panther lead, with all four goals scored inside a 13-minute span.

Joseph Woll needed to make the save, prevent the fourth goal, and help the team survive the 10-minute Panther barrage down only one. He made a nice save on Vladimir Tarasenko shortly beforehand, but there was no traffic at the top of his crease on this Montour shot, and the point shot knuckled high but did not deflect at any point.

Woll is now 4-6-0 with a .890 since returning from his injury. It’s tempting to give him more time in the net tomorrow to work his way through it—he hasn’t played a ton since his return, with Samsonov staking a pretty firm claim to the #1 job—but the injury risk probably isn’t worth it. Martin Jones could also use the game action, knowing it’s not totally inconceivable that he could be called on at some point in the playoffs.

10.  The last thing the Leafs needed as they attempted to manufacture a third-period push was another penalty in the first minute of the final frame, but during an offensive zone shift for Toronto, another highly debatable call (holding on Tavares) sent Florida to the power play. At this point in the game, the penalties were 6-2 in favour of the Panthers.

The Leafs did finally get some calls to go their way in the third period (the Bennett hook on Tavares was a really soft penalty). With a chance to get themselves back in the game with 14 minutes remaining, the power play couldn’t convert. There were a few frustrating moments where Rielly or Marner threw pucks away high in the zone to start the PP, but there was one glorious chance that would’ve changed the complexion of the final 13 minutes of the third if it went in. Rielly found Auston Matthews alone at the back post, where he outwaited Stolarz but jammed it off the bar. It trickled in the crease but somehow stayed out.

With seven minutes remaining, the Leafs went on another power play—their last real chance to make a game of it. Marner skated downhill and slipped Matthews a pass in the slot that Matthews didn’t fully connect on with his redirect attempt, with an empty net waiting. John Tavares‘ stick then shattered on a pass, ending their in-zone possession.

Alas, it wasn’t the Leafs’ night. Their push at five-on-five wasn’t overly dangerous — they only generated eight shots on goal total in the third period — and they weren’t able to bear down or catch a break on the couple of power-play chances they created.

All eyes are now watching Sheldon Keefe to see how he will manage Auston Matthews tomorrow against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The injuries to Max Domi, Bobby McMann, and Calle Jarnkrok leave the Leafs with just 12 available forwards, but they have nine available options on defense, so they could consider 11/7 if they really wanted to rest him.

This has become more of a delicate situation than is ideal; the Leafs, Keefe, and everyone with a rooting interest in the team obviously wanted Matthews to seal the deal vs. Detroit or Florida so that this decision would be brainless.

The Leafs do need to shift gears and focus on the most important priority. Notably, the team has lost three in a row and conceded 15 goals in those games, though. The goal of the team wanting to enter the playoffs feeling better about their game does align with Matthews dressing tomorrow. It actually might be trickier if the Leafs had won a few games in a row, were feeling really good about the state of their game and the recent results, and Matthews was sitting on #69. The Leafs can’t rest an unlimited number of players tomorrow, and you could just as easily argue it should be Nylander or Tavares sitting.

Ultimately, Matthews has earned the right to make the call. Ideally, if he does play, with Tampa likely to rest players (including Vaislievsky), Matthews can clinch it earlier than later in the game, and Keefe can lean on his full bench the rest of the way.

with notes from Alec Brownscombe

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Joe Bowen & Jim Ralph Game Highlights