Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Beating the Florida Panthers would be extra special for Toronto Maple Leafs
By Steven Ellis2 months ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs finally slayed their playoff demons last year, winning a first-round matchup for the first time since 2004.
But you know that story. And you also know the excitement was short-lived, thanks to the Florida Panthers’ unlikely run to the Stanley Cup final.
For the second time this season, the Leafs and Panthers will fight it out in what’s becoming a potentially interesting rivalry. Just like in the spring, the Panthers came away with the win, with Sam Reinhart – Florida’s top scorer – scoring twice in a 3-1 affair.
The Leafs are hoping to flip the script, but it comes at an interesting time for the club. They lost both games last weekend and only edged out their two opponents in Sweden by a goal. Their last truly impressive 60-minute performance came against the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 11, a 5-2 victory.
The Panthers played in a spirited 5-0 win over the Ottawa Senators on Monday. It was highlighted by a spectacular moment when every player on the ice received a 10-minute misconduct. For the Leafs, there’s the hope they can take advantage of a tired Florida team, but they’re not taking anything for granted.
“Competitiveness is heightened, urgency is heightened,” defenseman Jake McCabe said. “When a team ends your season, you get up for those games pretty easy.”
Florida squeaked in as the final seed in the Eastern Conference last year before eliminating the Boston Bruins – a team coming off the most remarkable regular season in NHL history. They then tackled Toronto in five games before beating the Carolina Hurricanes to advance to the Cup final. Vegas ultimately downed the battered and bruised Panthers in five games to win their first Stanley Cup.
Captain John Tavares said the team has to prepare for every game the same. It doesn’t matter the opponent. But sending a message to the team that ended your season still means something.
“There’s a lot of emotions that go into this,” forward Matthew Knies said about facing the team that eliminated them. “We have a bad taste in our mouth with these guys. We’re really excited to get an opportunity to play them here in our barn.”
One storyline to watch will be Toronto’s response to Sam Bennett being back in the lineup. He missed the opening meeting between the two clubs, but many fans are still bitter about how he injured Knies during the second game of the playoff matchup. Knies was diagnosed with a concussion and didn’t return for the remainder of the series.
With Ryan Reaves in the lineup, we’ll see what happens – even though Reaves wasn’t on Toronto when the incident occurred. But, you know: narratives!
The Panthers sit second in the Atlantic Division, so it won’t be an easy matchup. The Leafs have played just four games over the past two weeks, and getting off to a hot start has been difficult. Florida is riding a high from Monday night, and it’s not like the trip from Ottawa to Toronto was too taxing.
But if the team needed any motivation to get the ship sailing in the right direction, a win against the Florida Panthers could go a long way.
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