3 ways the Leafs can get back on track in the Panthers series
Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
17 days ago
The Leafs are set to partake in a critical Game 3 with the task at hand simple: either win to keep pace in the series or fall behind 3-0. Given just how rare it is for teams to pull off the reverse sweep, tonight’s game is unequivocally a must-win for a team that is getting its first taste of the second round in nearly two decades.
Now this is not to say that there is no chance of the Leafs being able to get a win on the road given their strong showing in the previous round. But given a lot of the self-inflicted wounds and Matthew Knies being unavailable for the remainder of the series, this task will not be easy.
While it has been beyond frustrating to see the Leafs in this position given they have 36 high-danger chances and Sergei Bobrovsky has saved five goals above expected through the first two games, they have done a lot of things right that will give fans solace that it is possible for them to turn the tide back in their favour down in South Florida. I believe it all comes down to a few simple adjustments that could make a big difference in preventing the team from having their backs against the wall prematurely.
Here are three ways the Leafs can get back in their series against the Panthers beginning with tonight’s game.
1. Make Bobrovsky uncomfortable
You may think to yourself that the Leafs have already done just that given how many scoring chances they have had through two games as I mentioned earlier. However, I think the Leafs can do a lot more to make Bobrovsky have to earn each save and tire out the Panthers’ defence.
This sequence above is a good example of what the Leafs are doing well and where they can improve. Here, the Leafs apply heavy pressure on the forecheck and it forces the Panthers into turning the puck over and extending the offensive zone time. That results in Ryan O’Reilly getting some open space to get a shot off, which Bobrovsky calmly knocks aside.
Because there was no passing lane available, perhaps O’Reilly could fire the puck a bit lower so that a potential rebound may become available for himself. Bobrovsky’s lateral movement on all four goals the Leafs have scored thus far has been slow and a great way to get him swimming is to generate a potential loose puck that he won’t immediately get to. Alex Kerfoot’s goal in Game 2 is a prime instance of this working to perfection.
While we are on the subject of Game 2, there were too many moments where the Leafs made it easy for the Panthers’ defenders to get in the way to block the shot. This is especially apparent for shots from long range, which has not been as effective of a strategy as was in the first round against the Lightning. Getting as many scoring chances within a few feet of the net will go a long way in ensuring moments like this one are a rarity and not a common trend.
There is no doubt that Bobrovsky is a great goaltender and he is playing some of his best hockey right now. But the Leafs are playing a part in making Bobrovsky so dominant by not making him sweat a little bit more when having to make a save. Making Flordia’s netminder uncomfortable will do wonders in ensuring the Leafs can get more than just two goals in a game.
2. Take advantage of all the power plays
Paul Maurice can complain all he wants, but his team is not well disciplined and it’s a reason why the Leafs have had the edge in power play chances through the first two games. But with just one goal on the man advantage through the first two games, Toronto has yet to really punish the Panthers for their disorderly playstyle with the special teams battle.
Bobrovsky’s strong play is a major factor in why that has been the case and he is masking a lot of Florida’s shortcomings when down a man. But the Leafs have yet to generate any chances from rebounds or off the rush and that has played a role in how they have only managed to score once on 15 total shots for on the power play. Toronto needs to make it nearly impossible for the Panthers to get on loose pucks and win the battles that allow for rebound chances or plays off the rush to go in their favour on the man advantage.
How many more power plays the Leafs will get remains to be seen, but if the Panthers want to continue playing on the edge physically then expect Toronto to have the edge the rest of the way. Regardless, they need to ensure that they capitalize on them more because the officials are going to eventually stop blowing the whistle and eventually the calls will start tilting in the other direction. And with Wes McCauley being one of the referees for tonight’s game, this is something the Leafs will need to take seriously.
This is where it would be nice to see the Leafs’ big stars get on the scoresheet given that all of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly have gone scoreless in the first two games. It’s obviously not for a lack of trying given the aformented number of scoring chances the team has gotten, but it is certainly a far cry from how effective they were in the previous round.
The special team’s battle is always an important component of who wins a series, and the Panthers thus far have the edge due to their penalty kill unit only allowing a goal against up to this point. The Leafs need to change that and fast in order to get back on track.
3. Beat the Panthers at their own game
What has made Florida such a scary team and gotten them to this point is their relentless forecheck. They are an opportunistic team and their playstyle is one that works wonders in the playoffs, hence why they were able to overcome a 3-1 series deficit against the Bruins and how they enjoy a 2-0 lead at this point. It’s not to say this performance came out of nowhere since this group is a year removed from winning the President’s Trophy, but their altered approach has been far more effective this time around when compared to last season.
The Leafs have definitely been able to somewhat keep up with the Panthers’ speed, but Toronto has yet to find an answer to neutralizing Florida’s forecheck. I believe the solution to this is simple: the Leafs need to beat the Panthers at their own game.
Sheldon Keefe needs to instruct his players to be hungry on the puck and apply the same amount of pressure on the puck carrier that the Panthers have done. He should also tell them to play the body more often than not to gain separation and get things going in the right direction. And if a play is developing the other way, there needs to be bodies back to ensure that Ilya Samsonov has an easier time making the save to minimize the damage.
There is no denying that the Panthers have a quality group of players, with the likes of Matthew Tkachuk, Brandon Montour, Sam Reinhart, Alexander Barkov, and Sam Bennett leading the way. But as a collective whole, the Leafs possess the overall better lineup and playing a higher-tempo game will do wonders to ensure that Florida has a harder time keeping up.
At the end of the day, this all comes down to capitalizing on the chances you get and the Panthers have been the better team in that regard at even strength. If the Leafs want any shot of getting back in this series, matching Florida’s forecheck should help in generating more scoring opportunities and potentially more goals.
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