It didn’t take long for the Toronto Maple Leafs to know who their opponent would be in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Many were expecting it to be a re-match against the Boston Bruins to try and get revenge of past loses in the postseason.
However, the Florida Panthers did the unthinkable and clawed their way back down 3-1 in the series to achieve a major upset and take down the Bruins in seven games, clinching the series with a 4-3 win in overtime. After a historic and dominant regular season where the Bruins had 135 points, which brings up the notion of the Presidents’ Trophy Curse.
The Panthers have earned the right to continue on. Much like the Maple Leafs taking down a formidable foe and gaining momentum as a result of their win against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Panthers’ confidence is just as high and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If the Maple Leafs want to continue carving their path to the Stanley Cup they’re going to have to beat the Panthers. Here are three keys to winning the series.
Get To Bobrovsky Often
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky seems to shine against teams that have strong and successful regular seasons. With the Columbus Blue Jackets, he was instrumental in their 4-0 sweep of the Lightning back in 2018-19, having a save percentage of .925 in the postseason.
He was again a reason why the Panthers defeated the Bruins this season, though his numbers have been declining over the years. He has struggled to maintain and live up to the seven-year, $10 million contract he signed back in 2019 and it shows with his game. If the Maple Leafs want to come out on top, they need to pepper Bobrovsky with shots and make his life difficult in the crease.
Since joining the Panthers, Bobrovsky’s numbers and play have been less than ideal. Here is a breakdown of his numbers in the postseason with the Panthers.
His most productive postseason came last season where the Panthers themselves won the Presidents’ Trophy but lost in the second round. Bobrovsky came in relief for Alex Lyon, making the saves at critical moments during the series, much like Ilya Samsonov did in Game 6 to secure the win for the Maple Leafs. While his overall numbers don’t look great, Bobrovsky’s underlying stats are better than Samsonov’s. Bobrovsky has a five-on-five SV% of .939 and a high danger SV% of .857, while Samsonov is .905 and .791, respectively.
If the Maple Leafs want to succeed, they need to get to Bobrovsky early and often with quality shots on net. When they faced the Panthers in their first two meetings in the regular season, they managed to get 10 goals by him resulting in a SV% of .865 and .808 in both games. Now, the regular season means nothing, but they do have a playbook on him for the postseason.
The Panthers are the at the bottom of the standings in terms of goals against (3.86) and shots against (35.6) per game in the playoffs. The longer you wear down Bobrovsky and the defense the better. He doesn’t have the best rebound control, struggles with traffic in front of the net on second chance opportunities. He tends to go down early a lot, which could make it easier for the Maple Leafs to make quick cross ice passes with their puck movement.
If the Maple Leafs take his sight lines away and attack the net, that will be a key difference maker for the Maple Leasf in the series.
Be Aware of Neutral Zone Pressure
If there was one thing that stood out in the Panthers’ comeback against the Bruins, it was their relentless pressure in the neutral zone that played a factor. It was especially evident in Game 6.
The Panthers did a fantastic job of converging on puck carriers and having players in great spots to intercept a pass to quickly transition with an odd-man rush. It was impressive the way they anticipated the plays to pick off the Bruins passes and catch them off guard.
On the 2-1 win goal in Game 6, Connor Clifton was the lone defender back with the puck on his stick. Dmitry Orlov leaves the zone early to join the rush and receive the pass. However, when Clifton makes the breakout pass, it was easily picked off by Nick Cousins. Cousins read that play perfectly and already generated enough speed in the neutral zone to create a quick counter attack with Matthew Tkachuk. Cousins gets a shot off and Tkachuk is there for the rebound.
While the Maple Leafs defense does tend to join and activate on the rush, they have better players to play a responsible game where they aren’t so quick to leave the zone early. What they need to be cautious of is their breakout passing as turnovers and missed passes almost proved them costly in their series against the Lightning. A prime example was Game 5 where they gave the puck away 19 times.
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If the Maple Leafs can clean that up and have quality-controlled breakouts, they can use their speed to their advantage and avoid the Panthers ability to break plays up in the neutral zone.
Contain Montour and Tkachuk
Much like the Maple Leafs finally exorcising their playoff demons, the Panthers have to be on top of the world eliminating the team that just steamrolled the competition in the regular season. Even though the Panthers were a wild card team, the Maple Leafs should be at their best to contain their top offensive threats.
The Bruins had trouble keeping defenseman Brandon Montour and Tkachuk off the score sheet as they were the MVPs of that series. After a 73-point regular season, Montour continued producing with five goals and eight points in the series while Tkachuk led the way with 11 points. When they needed their top players to be at their best, they were the ones that led the charge to mount the comeback.
It all started in Game 5 with Tkachuk’s overtime winner. Montour started the goal scoring in Game 6 and scored the opening and tying goal in Game 7. Both players were the offensive catalysts and the Maple Leafs need to shut them down and take away any opportunity they might have, just like they did with Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos at even strength.
We know that Tkachuk can be a major agitator. The Maple Leafs need to keep things in check and not get caught up in his antics. They were composed against the Lightning and upped the intensity when they needed to. They’re going to have to do the same thing with Tkachuk in this series.
If the Maple Leafs want to continue with their playoff run, they’re going to have to follow these keys to a tee as it ended up hurting the Bruins. They should be ready to face an opponent that also took down an offensive juggernaut. Momentum is high on both sides, but it’s up to the Maple Leafs to continue keeping the foot on the gas and take that away from the Panthers.
Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.