After finally winning a playoff series for the first time since 2004, it seemed like the Toronto Maple Leafs might be on track towards finding success in the postseason. Going into the series against the Florida Panthers they were once again the favourite to continue that trend.
However, instead of being up in the series, they find themselves down in a 2-0 hole to the team that knocked off the top seed and record setting Boston Bruins.
While it wasn’t going to be an easy series given how the Panthers created a major upset, the Maple Leafs needed to be at their best. Like many times in the regular season, they can be their own worst enemy and it’s the reason why they’re down in the series. Having that poor play come back now in the postseason isn’t ideal as every game and every play is critical. If they want to have any hope of winning the series, they need to tighten up and be smart with the puck.
Keefe Not Pleased
Needless to say, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was very telling with his postgame comments from Game 2, after the Maple Leafs gave up two goals in the first 1:06.
“Disappointing. Baffling, frankly,” Keefe said according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “We didn’t make those mistakes one time in the last series.”
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With a comment like that you would think that the team was being heavily outshot and outscored against in Game 2. But it’s the exact opposite. The Maple Leafs had the advantage in five-on-five shot attempts with 55.67%, scoring chances for with 55.10% and high danger chances for with 57.89%. To Keefe’s point, while the Maple Leafs did give the puck away quite often during their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, though it didn’t end up costing them the way this series is.
The Maple Leafs managed to set the tone of the game in the first period jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead with goals from Alexander Kerfoot and Ryan O’Reilly. After heading into the second with a 2-1 lead, you would think that the Maple Leafs would keep doing what made them successful in the previous period. However, they were once again the cause of their demise in this game, just like it was in Game 1.
The period started off with a failed clearing attempt and turnover in the neutral zone. As the Panthers quickly countered with an attack, Aleksander Barkov tied the game up. While goaltender Ilya Samsonov should’ve made a stop, the turnover shouldn’t have happened. Seconds later it was the relentless forecheck of the Panthers that once again proved to be a problem for the Maple Leafs as the failed zone exit leads to a turnover and Gustav Forsling gave the Panthers the lead.
Related: Maple Leafs’ Samsonov Focused on Series, Not Bobrovsky
Before the series started, I mentioned that the Maple Leafs needed to be aware of the Panthers’ neutral zone pressure and quick transitional game. It was a reason why they were able to bounce back against the Bruins and it’s the reason why the Panthers are up 2-0 in the series. Even with their sustained pressure on the forecheck and attacking with numbers, the Maple Leafs have yet to find an answer to counter that style.
These egregious mistakes proved to be costly for the Maple Leafs. They’ve already accounted for 30 giveaways in two games, which is less than ideal for a team that had these bad habits in the regular season. Now, it’s come back to bite them.
Disastrous Puck Management
While they managed to find their footing and started to claw their way back to try and solve Sergei Bobrovsky, that short span was the difference maker. This was the problem with the Maple Leafs before, where puck management and careless plays proved to be the reason why they ended up losing the game, even though they managed to out play the competition.
It’s exactly what you’d expect from the Maple Leafs when they’re faced with that aggressive in your face style of play. They’re in a panic, they’re feet aren’t moving and they’re careless with their puck movement. Here are a few quick video breakdowns of some key goals that been at the forefront. Notably, the game winning goals.
While this first clip from Game 1 isn’t one that focuses in on the puck management, it does reflect the Panther’s ability to quickly jump in on the attack in the neutral zone and the poor awareness from the Maple Leafs.
With the play unfolding in the neutral zone, defenseman T.J. Brodie appears to be in a good spot to defend the rush. While he backs off, he’s still focussed in on the puck and isn’t aware that Carter Verhaeghe was getting the jump on him. He goes in alone on the breakaway and makes him pay for the game-winning goal.
The attention to detail and poor awareness was the result of that game and it ended being a crucial reason why they lost in Game 1. Shifting the focus to the game-winning goal in Game 2, it’s a combination of the star players not being focussed and trying to be fancy with their zone exits.
In this clip, the Maple Leafs have sustained a massive amount of pressure in their own zone after the Panthers tied it up. Upon the breakout, Mitch Marner elects to pass it back to Auston Matthews who eventually tries to chip it out. It eventually is blocked and the puck is turned over. Everyone is once again a step behind because of the quick transition and Forsling capitalizes on his opportunity.
A lot went wrong on this play. While Matthews tried to get too fancy with his clearing attempt, many aren’t taking about Marner’s play that led to this goal. While he’s near the blueline, he’s easily in line for a quick chip out of the zone and can definitely have the ability to chase down the puck. Instead, he elects to pass it back to Matthews putting him in a bad spot with the coverage and opposing players in front of him. Marner shouldn’t have passed it back when he should’ve played the safe option.
Players Need to Decide Playoff Future
Home ice hasn’t been kind to the Maple Leafs in these playoffs as they now own a 1-4 record. That being set aside, their play on home ice has been a reason for those loses alone.
This team can’t afford to continue that kind of play where they start off strong, check out for a minute or two and try to claw their way back. The killer instinct we once thought they had seemed to have once again disappeared as they didn’t take advantage of the situation presented to them. No matter what, you can’t let a 2-0 lead in the postseason slide when you’re already down in the series.
The Maple Leafs need to dial in and play for a full 60 minutes without taking a shift off. They’re in a big hole now and they need to find a way out of it where they aren’t making mistakes at key moments in a game.
Related: Maple Leafs Now Underdog Against Panthers After Just One Game
At this point the players need to decide how they want to play and dictate their future. They showed that they can play to a high level in the postseason. It’s finding that consistency from game to game and not get complacent that still remains for the Maple Leafs. They can’t afford to sit back for a minute because games like this happen.
At time when everyone needs to be at their best, the work ethic and effort has to be much greater.
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