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4 thoughts heading into game four of the Maple Leafs and Panthers second round series

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Joseph Zita
9 months ago
Although the 19-year wait came to an end after the Toronto Maple Leafs finally ended the first-round curse, the team isn’t giving their fan base anything to cheer about in their second-round series against the Florida Panthers as the team from Sunrise currently has the team north of the border in a stranglehold and a chance to sweep them Wednesday night.
It was a sigh of relief when we all saw that puck that John Tavares shot toward the net slowly cross the goal line in game 6 against Tampa Bay just 10 days ago. However, since then, Maple Leaf fans haven’t experienced a win and are now watching their team – after knocking off the Lightning – slowly turn back into the Maple Leafs of the past.
Heading into this series against Florida wasn’t going to be an easy out by any means, and for the Leaf fans or hockey fans in general who thought otherwise, you were clearly in for a surprise. Florida came back from a 3-1 series deficit against the best team in NHL history (regular season-wise), and we were supposed to believe Toronto would walk all over them? Wrong.
Through three games of this series, the Panthers have shown us what the Maple Leafs were able to do to the Lightning in their first-round series. Despite not having the best game, you found a way to win. You outplayed your opponent, held onto the lead, and got the win in the end. One of the games is a tight battle, and it goes to overtime, you score the game-winner, and you win.
Toronto hasn’t been able to do what they did against the Lightning, and it has now put them in a 3-0 series deficit with a chance to be swept Wednesday night in Florida.
There’s been a lot of things that have gone wrong this series for Toronto, but there are also things that they’re doing well but just simply can’t execute and put the puck in the back of the net and ultimately pick up the win. Although it’s nice that in two of the games they outplayed Florida, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, you need wins to move on in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and this exact team learned that against the Lightning.
There were some games where Toronto didn’t deserve to win, yet they had a strong goaltending performance from Samsonov, and they found ways to claw back and pick up the win, and as I said, that just clearly hasn’t happened in their second-round series yet.

Can they win four in a row?

Heading into game four leaves us with questions waiting to be answered.
If they get swept by a wild card team – albeit a good one – what comes next? Yes, they exorcised those demons and finally won that fourth game to advance them to the second round for the first time since 2004, but at the end of the day, was it a successful season? If they get swept, the Toronto Maple Leafs still haven’t won a single game in the second round since 2004, and we all know if that happens that joke will now take the spot of the first-round joke that is now in the garbage.
Could we see someone on the coaching staff or management be fired or leave on their own if they get swept or lose in five games? Sheldon Keefe? Kyle Dubas? Brendan Shanahan? Somebody else? Could we see someone a part of the core four get traded – although it might be difficult?
However, let’s say Toronto wins game four on the road – where they’re now 3-1 – they still have to win games five, six and seven. Only four teams in NHL history have ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit – one being the Maple Leafs – however, it is extremely hard to accomplish, but all it takes is winning the first game and moving on to the next and trying to replicate the same thing that you did in the previous game.
1942 Maple Leafs: Trailed 3-0 to the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals. Won the Stanley Cup Finals
1975 Islanders: Trailed 3-0 to the Penguins in the Quarter-Finals. Lost in the Semi-Finals.
2010 Flyers: Trailed 3-0 to the Bruins in the Semi-Finals. Lost in the Stanley Cup Finals.
2014 Kings: Trailed 3-0 to the Sharks in the Quarter-Finals. Won the Stanley Cup Finals.
Could we possibly see the 2023 Toronto Maple Leafs added to this list and potentially watch them make history in these playoffs yet again? Who knows. They could, but it’ll be hard, and it all starts with game four Wednesday night and onwards from there if they win that game.

Toronto’s superstars aren’t performing like superstars

Without the core four (and Ilya Samsonov/Morgan Rielly) the Maple Leafs probably don’t win that first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, if I’m being honest. However, as soon as the second round started, they just haven’t been performing at the same rate they were against the Lightning, and it’s concerning given they’re one loss away from going home and starting up their golf game.
I know they’ve been creating scoring chances, and they’ve been close to helping their team find the back of the net, but it’s not good enough when Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares have a combined four points – all assists – through three games.
Morgan Rielly, however, has three assists and continues to be doing a good job on the backend with veteran Luke Schenn.
But going back to the core four for a minute. If you watched game three – which you probably did – you would know that was an awful game for Toronto’s superstars. Matthews and Marner – who were on a line together all night – did nothing on the ice and in a must-win game couldn’t help their team pull out a win on the road when they needed them the most.
Tavares, just like Matthews and Marner, didn’t look his best in game three and needed someone like him to take charge and help lead the team to victory but that didn’t happen.
Nylander, on the other hand, looked the best out of the four of them and helped set up the second goal of the game for Toronto which was scored by the seventh defenseman, Erik Gustafsson.
If Toronto thinks they have any chance of coming back in this series and putting their names in the history books with a magical comeback completing the reverse sweep, their superstars better start playing like superstars and their depth players are going to have to continue finding their way on the scoresheet. In game 3, as we know, it was Lafferty and Gustafsson who scored the only goals for Toronto. In game two, it was Kerfoot who scored their first goal and in game one, it was Bunting who scored their second goal while playing on the third line.
It’s going to be a team effort from here on out if they want a chance at winning four straight games to eliminate last season’s President Trophy winners.

Special teams should’ve been an X-factor

Although the Maple Leafs are down 3-0 in the series, and it’s almost certain the Panthers will close this series out sometime soon barring a magical comeback from the boys in blue and an epic choke from the Panthers, I honestly thought Toronto’s special teams could’ve been an X-factor this series and take advantage of certain games as I wrote about in my x-factors piece heading into the second round.
Toronto had one of the better power plays in the first round, and despite allowing four power-play goals in game one to Tampa Bay, they held the Lightning to just one power-play goal in the final five games, and they looked like the penalty kill that we saw in the regular season and not in game one.
Their power-play, as I said, was one of the better units in the first round, but their power-play hasn’t been generating at the same rate it was last round as it is in the second round. Toronto has only scored one power-play goal in seven attempts, and the lone goal came five minutes into game two when Ryan O’Reilly scored to give Toronto the 2-0 lead.
Although they have been getting great looks on the power play, just scoring one goal in seven attempts against a penalty kill like the Panthers isn’t good enough because Florida was one of the worst penalty-killing teams in the league this season (23rd ranked at 76.0%), and the same goes for the first round when they generated a horrendous 59.3% on the penalty kill against the Boston Bruins.
So going from 76.0% in the regular season on the penalty kill to 59.3% in the first round, the Florida Panthers are now back up to 85.7%, and the main reason why they’re generating at that percentage is because of Sergei Bobrovsky, who has been making spectacular saves on the penalty kill and five on five as well.

What should Toronto’s game four lineup look like?

Honestly, with all of the line juggling Keefe has done on and off throughout the games in these playoffs, I don’t care what the lineup looks like, just find a way to continue generating chances and find ways to put the puck past Bobrovsky more than two times in a game. If they can’t, then they should continue juggling the lines until something works for them, because as Matthews said during his postgame media avail after game three, “It’s do or die.”
However, if they go with the traditional 12/6 lineup, unlike game three of the series, I truly believe they need Liljegren in the lineup over Holl strictly for breaking the puck out of their zone faster and more efficiently. You’d have a blue line of McCabe, Brodie, Rielly, Schenn, Giordano and Liljegren, and honestly, I could make a case where Gustafsson comes into the lineup for Giordano because it’s no secret Giordano hasn’t looked his best during these playoffs, but I think they’d want to keep him in the lineup for his penalty killing services.
Now, if they go back to the 11/7 route like last game, I think you run the same blue line but insert Liljegren in and take out Holl while keeping Gustafsson in there. 11/7 – as we know – allows you to mix up the lines and pairings throughout the game and could benefit you more in line matching, although Toronto is the road team heading into game four.
Also: as of right now there is no update on Ilya Samsonov after he left last game with an injury. His status for game four is currently up in the air, but if he can’t go, Joseph Woll should and probably will get the nod in net for the Maple Leafs.
Anyways, we’ll see what the lineup looks like for game four and if these guys will force a game five or go out sad in a four-game sweep.
Game four goes tonight in Sunrise, Florida, where the Maple Leafs will be looking to stave off elimination and force a game five in Toronto Friday night. Puck drop for tomorrow’s game is at 7:00 pm ET on Sportsnet and CBC.
(Round one stats from Hockey-Reference.com)
(Round two stats from Hockey-Reference.com)

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