New NHL playoff round. Same Toronto Maple Leafs?
There was a certain air of déjà vu Tuesday when the Leafs dropped Game 1 of their Eastern Conference second-round series 4-2 to the Florida Panthers. Toronto had just closed out Tampa Bay in Game 6 of their first-round matchup to finally advance in an NHL postseason for the first time since 2004, a two-decade stretch that included six consecutive first-round exits (and 11 straight prior losses in potential elimination games).
The Leafs didn’t start that Lightning series on a high note. In fact, they were downright embarrassed on home ice, losing Game 1 7-3. That result alone was enough to elicit groans of “here we go again” from fans and media alike who’d seen promising Toronto teams of the past wilt under the pressure of postseason expectations.
There was more of that to go around in the opening of the second round.
The Panthers whipped into Toronto on a heater, an 8-seed Cinderella team that had just dismissed the No. 1-ranked, President’s Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in an unforgettable — and unpredicted by most — first-round upset. Florida pounded its way to a 2-0 lead in Game 1 against Toronto, wasn’t rattled when the Leafs rallied at 2-2 and was opportunistic in taking control of the series from there.
The Panthers play with abandon. They’re fast, feisty and full of an energy that the famously business-wear-clad crowd at Scotiabank Arena might find unpleasant. And Florida beat the Leafs on their turf — and at their own game — to put Toronto right back where it was to open the first round: down 1-0, and now lacking home-ice advantage.
What all went wrong for the Leafs in Game 1? And how worried should Toronto be about addressing — and ultimately overcoming — those roadblocks to prevent the Panthers from pulling off another surprising series victory?
Let’s break out the first panic meter of the playoffs to dissect where the Leafs stumbled and how exactly they can thrive again.
Trouble with Tkachuk
Problem: Matthew Tkachuk is dominating all over the ice
Panic meter reading: 9/10
The Leafs must be seeing a lot of Matthew Tkachuk on video, because Florida’s first-rate forward was on Toronto like a swarm of bees in Game 1.
Tkachuk’s line with Sam Bennett and Nick Cousins is emerging as a playoff powerhouse, and that was the case Tuesday. At even strength, Tkachuk was on the ice for 26 of the Panthers’ shot attempts to only eight against. His unit controlled 75% of expected goals.
Shots on goal with Tkachuk present? 13-5. Scoring chances? 11-4. It’s no shock Tkachuk & Co. outshone John Tavares and Mitchell Marner in their matchup. Tkachuk dangled right around Marner to set up a rebound goal by Cousins to open the Game 1 scoring after the Leafs’ blown chances to do it themselves.
And that’s not all Tkachuk accomplished.
He pocketed three assists on the night and paced all skaters with nine hits. By comparison, Marner, Calle Jarnkrok, Auston Matthews, Michael Bunting and William Nylander combined for six hits. Overall, Toronto couldn’t match what the Tkachuk line was bringing whether in pace or physicality. At least not until coach Sheldon Keefe went back to the drawing board.
By the second period, Keefe had reunited Marner on a line with Matthews — dropping Nylander onto Tavares’ wing — to try tackling Tkachuk together. That combination might have slowed Tkachuk but certainly didn’t shut him down. Tkachuk still goaded Leafs’ defenseman Jake McCabe into taking a penalty late in the third period — making McCabe seemingly so focused on crunching Tkachuk into the boards he did so about 200 feet from his own net — which put the Panthers at an advantage when Brandon Montour scored their fourth insurance goal with less than eight minutes to play.
Tkachuk exemplifies all that Florida did well to keep Toronto off course: He’s fast, fierce and strikingly skilled. That combination was as potent for the Panthers in Game 1 as it proved to be drowning the Bruins. Add in a relentless forecheck that left little to no breathing room through the neutral zone and it’s not difficult to pinpoint why Toronto was frequently stymied.
Tkachuk isn’t going away, either. Keefe didn’t show his hand on lineup changes after Wednesday’s practice but did admit he wouldn’t rule out putting Marner on Matthews’ wing again to start Game 2.
“How we deal with the matchups is part of it,” Keefe said. “We spent the morning here more so going through the video and talking through things as a staff, and we’ll move on to some debates about the lines and stuff, and we’ll sort through that. We’ll probably go back and forth a bunch before tomorrow.”
Powerless power play
Problem: Leafs go 0-for-4 on the man advantage
Panic meter reading: 6/10
Toronto had a glorious chance to pounce on the Panthers. It wound up rolling over.
The Leafs earned two power plays in the first 4:46 of Game 1, when Bennett and Gustav Forsling took back-to-back penalties. Toronto generated a couple fine looks on Florida netminder Sergei Bobrovsky but got nothing past him. A potentially tone-setting start fizzled, knocking the wind right out of Toronto’s sails.
“The power play needs to come through,” Keefe said Wednesday. “You get two opportunities to score early in the game like we did, that’s a big difference. Not only because we’re [eventually] down a goal going into the third period, but you’re chasing the game versus us getting off to a good start early and everything sort of settles in from there. Because we were chasing it, it’s harder to manage their best players the way that we needed to win.”
Poor power-play production is rapidly becoming a trend for Toronto. The Leafs were 6-for-14 with the extra man through their first four games against Tampa Bay; that deteriorated to 0-for-4 in their final two games. It’s a small sample — even adding in the most recent Game 1 total — but a playoff series is short and sweet for a reason. Every element of what a team does (or fails to do) becomes amplified.
Florida’s penalty kill hasn’t been a juggernaut in the postseason either (64.5%), which makes the Leafs’ inability to capitalize against it all the more perplexing. Given how little open ice Toronto had to work with overall in Game 1, those man advantage moments are critical. The Leafs can’t afford another night coming up empty on special teams.
One way to avoid that is cracking the code on Bobrovsky.
Sergei Bobrovsky stood tall for the Panthers in Game 1 against the Leafs. Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Problem: A revitalized Sergei Bobrovsky is showing Vezina Trophy-winning form
Panic meter reading: 5.5/10
Bobrovsky is back on the case in a big way.
Florida’s $10 million-per-year netminder suffered through a brutal start to the regular season that put him at 8-12-1 with an .894 save percentage and 3.32 goals-against average on Jan. 1. Bobrovsky fought from there to a better finish (16-8-2, .907% and 2.86 GAA) only to fall ill in late March and see Alex Lyon take over the crease.
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Well, Lyon struggled mightily in the first round against Boston, and Bobrovsky returned to the starter’s role in Game 4 of that series. He and the Panthers haven’t looked back. The two-time Vezina Trophy winner gets stronger in every outing, and Bobrovsky put on his best playoff performance to date in Game 1 with a 36-save effort. That also marked Bobrovsky’s fourth straight win, making it his longest stretch of consecutive victories all season.
That’s potentially bad news for the Leafs.
Bobrovsky could just be hitting his stride now, fueled by his personal ups and downs and the general underdog story Florida is wielding to perfection. Toronto has been choked up in past playoff series by spectacular goaltending (Andrei Vasilevskiy did it in Game 7 last year and Game 5 this time around) and is seeing remnants of it again now from Bobrovsky. It’s also possible Bobrovsky will regress in the face of Toronto’s (anticipated) adjustments.
What the Leafs eventually did well in the first round was create havoc around Vasilevskiy and take away his eyes. It’s easier said than done, of course, to make a goalie uncomfortable — particularly when Florida is physical boxing out around the net. Still, that’s the task awaiting Toronto in Game 2 (and beyond). In order to beat Bobrovsky, the Leafs must ensure there’s not much to see in front of him.
Problem: Toronto made too many unforced errors in Game 1
Panic meter reading: 4/10
Toronto need not do its streaking opponent any favors. And yet, the Leafs couldn’t help coughing up some costly plays in the series opener.
Take TJ Brodie’s pinch gone bad that allowed Carter Verhaeghe — a 40-goal scorer in the regular season — to run free on a second-period breakaway. Boom. Suddenly it was 3-2, after Toronto had just fought back from a 2-2 hole to tie the game. That can’t happen.
“We give a breakaway to the one guy we definitely don’t want to give a breakaway to,” Keefe said after the game. “We cannot make that mistake when it’s 2-2. That’s a tough one.”
Carter Verhaeghe restores Panthers’ lead before end of 2nd period
Carter Verhaeghe gets in behind the Maple Leafs’ defense and finishes the one-on-one opportunity.
It wasn’t the Leafs’ only unfortunate miscue. Toronto was credited with 12 giveaways on the night — to Florida’s 10 — and some were especially glaring (cross-ice pass attempts intercepted in front of the Leafs’ own net). The neutral zone was a battle ground throughout Game 1, and it was Toronto often on the losing end.
“I thought we made mistakes,” Keefe said. “Credit to Florida, because of how they play, they force you to make mistakes. But I thought we made some mistakes tonight that we didn’t make in the last series. … When you make a mistake, the recovery time, it’s not really there. I think that caught us. I think our guys will adjust to that.”
Leafs’ defenseman Luke Schenn agreed with Keefe’s assessment, and acknowledged Toronto would have to clean up its own bad habits to perhaps start revealing more of Florida’s.
“A lot of the goals that were scored were based off self-inflicted [problems],” Schenn said. “We have a lot more to give. They’re a physical bunch. They’re heavy on the forecheck. In the past everyone thought of them as being deadly off the rush, but they have some big bodies out there. Like any playoff series, I expect it to get a little more physical as we go here. That’s expected.”
Assuming Toronto has identified its issues, the good news is they can be overcome. In playoff hockey, it’s adapt or die. Florida is the perfect example of that. Toronto also showed its resilience bouncing back from that Game 1 flub against Tampa Bay to win three of the next four and advance.
There’s no reason the Leafs can’t do the same things now, at least when it comes to avoiding these mistakes.
Searching for star finish
Problem: Florida (mostly) blanks Toronto’s top scorers
Panic meter reading: 3/10
What the Leafs’ core lacked in Game 1 hits it made up for in shots.
Nylander led the team with seven. Matthews put six on net. Tavares had five. The only one of those three who came away with a point, though, was Matthews, who had a terrific setup on Matthew Knies’ beauty of a goal (the rookie’s first in the NHL).
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Toronto’s other scorer was Bunting. No disrespect to either him or Knies, but if the Leafs are going to match the Panthers’ production, they’ll need those aforementioned star players to finish.
Florida’s best players were their most impactful ones in Game 1. Beyond Tkachuk’s three helpers and goals from Bennett, Cousins and Verhaeghe, the Panthers were boosted by the continued excellence of Montour. Florida’s top blueliner is having a career-best season that includes his sixth playoff goal in eight games — tied for third most ever by a defenseman in that long a stretch — to ice the Panthers’ win.
Florida knows how to slow down a team’s top-flight talents, too. In its series against Boston — in which Florida fell behind in 3-1 — the Bruins had multiple goals from Taylor Hall (4), Jake DeBrusk (3), Brad Marchand (3), Tyler Bertuzzi (2) and David Pastrnak (2) through the first four matchups.
In the final three? Pastrnak (3) and Bertuzzi (3) were the only Bruins with multiple goals.
The Leafs’ low star wattage is most likely a one-and-done situation, though. It all comes full circle on finding ways to challenge Bobrovsky and capitalize on missed chances (see: the power play). None of Matthews, Marner or Tavares scored in the Leafs’ first game against Tampa Bay either, and all three rebounded with impressive — and timely — offensive contributions the rest of Toronto’s way.
That’s one positive trend the Leafs should be able to count on continuing, as their long-awaited second-round experience rolls on.