Three x-factors for the Maple Leafs heading into their second round matchup against the Panthers
Photo credit:Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
By Joseph Zita22 days ago
Well, they actually did it. The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did the thing.
As we all know by now, the Maple Leafs defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals to advance to the second round for the first time in 19 – yes – 19 years!
As Chris Cuthbert said during the game-winning goal scored by John Tavares in overtime, they finally caught lightning in a bottle and broke the 19-year curse. What a brilliant call by Cuthbert.
Now, with the first round finished, it’s time to go through three other x-factors for the Maple Leafs as they begin their second-round series against the Florida Panthers tonight.
1. Special Teams
Special teams are such an easy choice in any series, but given how both of these teams’ special teams performed in their first-round matchups, Toronto could benefit from this if they get things going on both units.
For their first-round series against Tampa Bay, I said Toronto’s penalty kill could be an x-factor for them and although their penalty kill wasn’t lockdown like it was against the Lightning in the regular season, they still limited Tampa Bay to just five power-play goals in 21 attempts (76.1% PK) with four of them coming in game one alone when the Lightning went 4-8 on the night.
Toronto’s power play, however, just scored one more goal than Tampa Bay and went 6-21 (28.6% PP) which isn’t anything crazy like how the Oilers, Jets, Bruins and Stars power-play generated, but 28.6% is still pretty good, especially when you outperform your opponents power-play.
Anyways, let’s discuss why it could be an x-factor against the Panthers in round two.
Florida’s power play generated at 25.0% against the Bruins and their penalty-kill was a miserable 59.3% which is the third worst out of all 16 teams that played in the first round, and out of the eight teams now in the second round, they currently rank second worst, only ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights (58.3%).
Florida was the most penalized team during the regular season (333 minor penalties) and in the games between Toronto and Florida, Toronto had 16 power-play attempts in just four games, however, they only scored three goals on the man advantage and generated at just 19% against the 23rd ranked penalty-kill in the league (76.0%).
If Toronto could find a little more success on the man advantage against this Panthers team in the second round and if the Panthers continue to struggle on the penalty kill, Toronto’s power play could potentially be lethal.
For their penalty kill, Toronto’s just got to be at or a little better than what it was during the first round. As I said, 76.1% on the PK isn’t terrible by any means, especially when your PK was better than your opponents, but if they could get to at least 80% like during the regular season or even better somehow, that will go a very long way against a team that can score a ton of goals like the Panthers.
2. The New-Look Third Line
The new-look third line consists of two newcomers to the Maple Leafs’ lineup in Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari, and it also has second-year Leaf, Michael Bunting on the left wing.
Although we only got to see this line in game 6, I think this line has the potential to do a lot of good things for the Maple Leafs in the second round if they can stick together. This third line has a little bit of everything, and if they can continue to gel together, they can maybe do some serious damage.
Now, it’ll be interesting to see how Keefe wants to match the lines during these games against Florida, but let’s say the Panthers’ third line matches up against Toronto’s, well, Florida’s third line consists of Eetu Luostarinen, Anton Lundell and Sam Reinhart, and they had themselves a pretty darn good series against Boston as they combined for six goals and eight assists for 14 points in seven games with only one goal coming on the power-play, so you know they’ve done a good job at generating chances 5v5.
And although Toronto’s new-look third line hasn’t been together long and Bunting has only played in a game and a half due to his three-game suspension, they’ve played pretty good hockey thus far and have had some pretty big plays in the early going in these playoffs.
O’Reilly had himself a pretty great start to the series against Tampa Bay which included him scoring the tying goal in game three to force overtime and setting up Morgan Rielly with under a minute left in overtime to win the game and take the 2-1 series lead. Through the seven games, he had himself two goals and five assists for seven points and Acciari also potted home two goals of his own as well, one in game three and another in game four. Bunting, on the other hand, went pointless in the game and a half he played in. But if Bunting can get back to playing his game as we saw in the regular season while meshing well with these two new linemates and not going over the line with the officials, he could have a good series.
3. Ilya Samsonov
The last x-factor for the Maple Leafs in the second round is someone I didn’t initially put as an x-factor against the Lightning, but oh my was he ever a huge one that series.
Ilya Samsonov – despite allowing six goals in game one and getting pulled at the start of the third period – was a key reason why the Maple Leafs ended up defeating the Lightning in six games. After his miserable performance in the first game of the series, he then put up a .919 SV% in the last five games of the series, just incredible work by the first-year Maple Leaf in just his third NHL playoff series.
Now, I don’t think he has to be the reason the Maple Leafs win this series, but if he can play at the same level or somewhere close to how he played in the final five games of the first-round series, that will do wonders for Toronto.
Florida’s goalies weren’t the greatest against the Bruins, but they were good enough to get the series win in seven games and that’s all that matters in the end.
The Panthers went with Alex Lyon in games one to three (.902 SV%) and then went with Sergei Bobrovsky midway through game three and stayed with him until game seven (.891 SV%) and as I said, Samsnov put up a .919 SV% in the final five games against the Lightning and with his rough game one, he still managed to finish the series with a .900 SV%.
Samsonov – in three games against the Panthers this season – went 2-0-1 with a 1.44 GAA and a .953 sv%, and over his career has a 3-1-1 record with a 2.89 GAA and a .915 SV% dating back to three other games while he was a member of the Washington Capitals.
So if he can be at or around that save percentage and if the Maple Leafs can get going on the special teams and take advantage of how poor the Panthers were on the penalty kill (if that stays the same in round two), Toronto could do well this series.
However, that’s why they play the games, so despite listing three potential x-factors for the second-round series, it’ll be a matter of if they have a good result when the puck drops.
Game one of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals between Toronto and Florida is tonight at 7:00 pm ET on Sportsnet.
(Stats from Hockey-Reference.com)
(Stats from StatMuse.com)
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