Why we’re still hopelessly optimistic about the Maple Leafs following Game 1

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
11 months ago
What a difference a round makes. After the 7-3 loss in Game 1 of the first round, many people were already making plans for May away from hockey and the talk was that we might have seen the last of Michael Bunting in a Leafs jersey. That ended up working out, and so help me, I don’t think the 4-2 loss to the Panthers require a forensic audit either.
The biggest difference in Game 1 was goaltending. Like against Tampa, Samsonov didn’t have his best outing to start the series. That’s fine. The guy is allowed the occasional off night, even in the playoffs. The catch was that as much as the Leafs forwards pushed late in the game, Sergei Bobrovsky was busy being the guy who earned the $10M AAV contract, not the guy who has been cashing the cheques for the past few seasons. Given that he is now on his first four game win streak of the season it can play out in one of two ways, he continues on a goaltending heater that leads to the Panthers celebrating a cup win, or he comes down to Earth and the Leafs forwards can do what you’d expect them to do to a Bobrovsky/Lyon tandem.
That’s not to say that the Leafs couldn’t be better. I think it’s easy to point to moments where Mitch Marner and William Nylander were overthinking things…
The Leafs couldn’t cash in on the powerplay and that was ultimately the difference maker. As Paul Maurice pointed out after a double minor to the Panthers, the Leafs had a 5-1 advantage for special teams. It didn’t benefit them on the scoresheet and the Leafs were out-chanced at 5v5. The difference seems to be as simple as the Panthers coming into this game with a full head of steam and still having Tkachuk, Montour, Verhaeghe, and Barkov firing on all cylinders and committed to an attack game, where the Leafs at times felt like they were still trying to play the Lightning and didn’t show any awareness for the differences in the Panthers game.
It seems like the Leafs blueline was most exposed when adjusting to the Panthers. Morgan Rielly still seems to be in full Morgan Rielly playoff mode, but TJ Brodie was surprisingly off, and given that he doesn’t repeat offend on bad performances too often, that’s a positive sign for the Leafs going forward.
The one player I would have a bit of concern about when it comes to the Leafs blueline is Mark Giordano. It wasn’t a great first round for Giordano and Game 1 wasn’t ideal either. Having Giordano sit for Gustafsson might be an easy switch to make especially when Rielly is showing the benefit of an active defense and as Keith Tkachuk pointed out earlier this year, the Panthers aren’t the most physical of teams (although they had a couple of moments last night.)
The Leafs fourth line still needs some tweaking as well, as Kampf was overused in the first against Florida’s top players and Keefe seemingly got wise to that fact during the first intermission. To some extent, the Leafs continue to make the case for the 11/7 format strictly because it eliminates the ability to roll four lines which hasn’t worked for Toronto in the playoffs. Even if the only change that really comes in this regard is the re-emergence of Sam Lafferty as the option instead of Zach Aston-Reese next game, there is some merit in seeing what could work. I’ll continue to bang on my Pontus Holmberg drum, but don’t expect anyone to listen.
Game 1 showed a combination of overthinking and under preparation. The Leafs are still struggling with the idea that they should be dictating the place and are overthinking their way into lineup matchups that don’t benefit them. Understandably with the short turnaround between series, there was a desire to stick with what worked against the Lightning over adjusting to what they perceived as best for the Panthers, a team they likely didn’t anticipate playing. The Leafs defensive pairings and their bottom six are still skewed to a more imposing opponent.
And frankly, the Leafs were goalie’d. How much anything needs to change other than Bobrovsky coming back down to earth remains to be seen and there is nothing that makes it seem that Toronto can’t quickly get back in this series.

Check out these posts...