The Florida Panthers have momentum heading into Game 2 of their second-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday. They won the opening game, which means they’re guaranteed at least a split on the road. They’ll also be looking for their fifth straight win.
If the Panthers win tonight, they will take a significant 2-0 series lead. The team from Florida has exceeded expectations and shown that just making the playoffs was not enough.
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Although Florida had only one day off before Game 1, they had more energy than the Maple Leafs. Now the question is whether that wave of momentum will ebb or the Panthers are the real deal.
In this post, I’ll look at three problems the Maple Leafs must overcome to pull out a win in Game 2.
Problem One: Can the Maple Leafs Beat Sergei Bobrovsky?
The Panthers beat the Maple Leafs thanks to the impressive goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky. He played probably his best game of the postseason, making 34 saves, and has now won four games in a row.
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He is heating up exactly at the right time. If that’s so, he could be a major problem for Toronto. He already ‘goalied’ the Blue and White in Game 1. Will he do it again in Game 2?
That is a key question. The regular season suggests that, while Bobrovsky had an excellent game, the Maple Leafs can solve him if their top players step up.
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But that’s true overall. The Maple Leafs need to crank up their game no matter how well Bobrovsky plays. They’ll win Game 2 with the right changes and with solid performances from their key players. If that happens, they’ll even the series.
Problem Two: Can the Maple Leafs Overcome the Panthers’ Momentum?
The Panthers entered Game 1 with a ton of confidence and with good reason. They earned a highly-emotional win over a team no one thought they could beat and roared back from a 1-3 series deficit against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins to do it.
The truth is that the Maple Leafs did not play a bad game against the Panthers. I could argue that it was their second-best game of the postseason – their best was Game 2 in Toronto when they spanked the Tampa Bay Lightning by a score of 7-2.
The Maple Leafs had two power-play opportunities to take control early in Game 1, but they didn’t score. Bobrovsky stoned them time after time, and as the game wore on, he got stronger.
The short turnaround between games helped the Panthers rather than hurt them. But logic suggests that there’s going to be a natural letdown coming off such the two emotional “wins” for the Panthers.
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The first emotional win was actually making the postseason. Teams that must play highly-competitive games down the stretch to clinch their berth then enter the playoffs with momentum. The second emotional win was the high of beating the Bruins in a historic upset.
In retrospect, in Game 1, the Maple Leafs could not overcome (a) the Panthers’ confidence and momentum and (b) the shutdown goaltending of Bobrovsky.
Perhaps the Panthers can keep up the momentum. However, it strikes me that the root word for momentum is “moment,” and that says what needs to be said.
Problem Three: Can the Maple Leafs Take Advantage of What the Panthers Give Them?
The Panthers’ style of play differs from the Lightning’s. Specifically, Florida is more aggressive and creates a lot more shots. However, they also give up a lot more offensive opportunities. The third problem for the Maple Leafs is taking advantage of what the Panthers give them.
The Maple Leafs already know that Florida just keeps coming at you, which results in more chances but also allows more chances heading the other way. Unlike the Tampa Bay series, the Maple Leafs actually outshot the Panthers 36-28 in Game 1, but they had no scoring from the team’s big guns.
The Maple Leafs’ stars were silent. The team’s two goals were scored by Matthews Knies and Michael Bunting. Although these players have an offensive upside, they are not Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, or William Nylander. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe admitted as much after Game 1.
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“We’ve got to get more in front of him (Bobrovsky). One of the big differences in our scoring chances that we had here tonight – whether you look at the power-play chances or five-on-five, or six-on-five – we had a lot more tonight in closer to the net than we’ve had maybe in the previous series. We’ve just got to make good on those.”
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
As always, Keefe will tweak the lineup ahead of Game 2. Already, he’s moved Zach Aston-Reese out and Sam Lafferty back in. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he went back to the 11-and-7 configuration. That will allow him to keep the forward units flowing as he finds the best opportunities.
If I’m right, I would also not be surprised if, with fewer forwards and more defensemen, he’d bring Justin Holl back into the mix. Holl is a bigger body, is more physical, and blocks more shots. With the extra defenseman, Keefe can deploy Holl into situations where he has a better chance of succeeding, and he’s valuable when he’s succeeding.
The Maple Leafs also need to improve their power-play performance. They’ve been firing blanks over the past three games or so, including going 0-4 in Game 1. Will Keefe move Nylander to the first power-play unit as a way to get him that first goal and crank up his confidence?
We’ll see soon. I’m expecting a big game from the Blue and White tonight.