The Toronto Maple Leafs’ survival depends on utilizing matchups with home ice advantage

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Filipe Dimas
11 months ago
Sheldon Keefe and his Toronto Maple Leafs roster still have a daunting task ahead of them. After Wednesday’s win, the team remains down 3-1 in the series and must win three more games in a row to advance to their first conference finals appearance since 2003. The advantage on Toronto’s side is that two of those three games are to be played on their home ice at Scotiabank Arena. Although, with an abysmal 1-3 record so far at home in these playoffs, the question is whether home ice is an advantage at all.
To say Sheldon Keefe has been outcoached throughout both series so far would be an understatement. Both Tampa Bay and Florida have had their top lines feast on Toronto’s bottom pairings, leading to the egregious +/- stats of Justin Holl and Mark Giordano that lead to the former getting benched for three games.
The largest advantage of playing on home ice is arguably being awarded last change, and allowing the home coach to match his lines against what the opponent puts out on every face off. If Toronto hopes to do the near impossible and be the fifth team to ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, then Sheldon Keefe needs to learn to adapt his strategy to counter Florida’s top lines, rather than letting Florida Coach Paul Maurice dictate matchups. 
Currently, Sheldon Keefe’s priority seems to be matching lines to zone starts rather than playing to their opponent. Thus far in the playoffs, Toronto has seven players who starts two-thirds or more of their shifts in the defensive zone with Kampf and Aston-Reese both seeing over 90% of their faceoffs begin in the defensive end. By comparison, Anthony Duclair has the highest percentage of defensive zone starts for Florida at only 60.4%. 
The difference in player utilization shows the difference in coach mindset. Sheldon Keefe believes that his roster exists as two pieces, a top half that gets deployed in the offensive zone and a bottom half that gets deployed in the defensive zone. Meanwhile, Paul Maurice sees the game as more of a chess match, watching what his opponent is doing and countering it with the best move available.
With a centre core that consists of Matthews, Tavares and O’Reilly, there is no reason that the likes of David Kampf or Zach Aston-Reese should ever be taking draws against Florida’s top line, regardless of where on the ice the faceoff may be taking place. Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk have already proven to be a thorn in the Maple Leafs’ side through the first four games of this series. Countering them should be priority number one going forward, and that begins with hard-matching them at home at every available opportunity.
Line matching may be one of the few advantages that home-ice offers, but it’s the only one that the Toronto Maple Leafs and their coaching staff can control. While the roar of the crowd can give energy and confidence to the players, it’s up to the team to give those fans a reason to cheer. Three must-win games await Toronto, and if they want to get momentum on their side by putting some pressure and doubt in Florida’s mind, it starts with showing the Maple Leafs can win at home.

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