In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, we’ll share a number of thoughts we have as the Maple Leafs prepare to take on the Florida Panthers in tonight’s Game 2.
Thus far, we were reminded that the Panthers’ engagement with momentum is quite similar to the Montreal Canadiens a few seasons ago when they rose up to beat the Maple Leafs in the bubble. Second, we’ll look at some of the motivational techniques that Panthers’ coach Paul Maurice likely used to motivate his team. Third, we’ll take a look at some of the unique scheduling issues this series has caused for both teams.
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Will these things make a difference? Who’s to know? Yet, they make this Round 2 series interesting.
Item One: Is the Panthers’ Momentum Similar to the Montreal Canadiens?
Back in 2021, the Montreal Canadiens were massive underdogs in their first-round series with the Maple Leafs. They barely made the playoffs and finished 19 points behind Toronto. Most hockey prognosticators had the Maple Leafs picked to win in four straight games.
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The Canadiens won Game 1 of that series by a score of 2-1, but then they lost the next three games. Down three games to one going into Game 5, they appeared to be down and out. But, they won that game 4-3 in overtime. Then they won Game 6 by a score of 3-2 also in overtime. The Canadiens followed that up with a 3-1 Game-7 win in Toronto to complete the comeback.
The momentum from that comeback carried Montreal into their second-round series and they took out the Winnipeg Jets in four straight games in Round 2. They followed that up by defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in six games to go on to the Stanley Cup Final.
It wasn’t until then that the momentum and confidence they gained from their series with the Maple Leafs wore off. Eventually, they lost the final series to the Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning in five games.
Flash forward to 2023. The Panthers finished an astounding 43 points back of the first-place Boston Bruins. And, despite losing their last two games of the season, they squeaked into the postseason by a single point.
After winning their first game of the series, the Panthers lost the next three games. And, like the Canadiens two season before, they seemed to be done. They won Game 5 4-3 in overtime, followed that win up with a 7-5 win in Game 6, and then completed the comeback with a 4-2 win in Boston in Game 7.
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They started their second-round series with the Maple Leafs with a 4-2 win.
Are we, as Maple Leafs’ fans going to witness a repeat of 2021? Will the momentum and confidence gained by the Panthers be enough for them to roar past Toronto on their way to the Stanley Cup Final? We will have to see.
Item Two: If Ever Paul Maurice Needed a Motivational Video, He Got One
The Panthers’ head coach Paul Maurice is regarded in the NHL as a very smart man, a great coach, and a motivator. We can’t see him passing up the opportunity that Maple Leafs’ fans gave him recently.
Following their elimination of Tampa Bay, a video went around of Maple Leafs’ fans chanting “We want Florida! We want Florida!” It would be hard for Maurice NOT to take advantage of such low-hanging fruit to utilize to motivate his charges.
We also wonder if the mantra that Panthers’ players have been repeating – “We are the underdogs” – might be partly the result of a timely video session created by Maurice and sponsored by Maple Leafs’ fans (from “The Maple Leafs, Better Late Than Never, Finally Win a Playoff Round, Shawna Richer, New York Times, 30/04/2023).
Item Three: What a Strange Schedule the NHL Created
We were surprised to see the NHL seemingly rush the start of the second-round series between the Panthers and the Maple Leafs. The Panthers only had one day between their last game in Round 1 and their first game in Round 2, while Toronto had two days. The second game in the series had the usual one-day break following game one.
But, when the series returns to Florida for Game 3, rather than taking place two days after Game 2 and being played on Saturday, the game is not scheduled until Sunday night. Game 4 won’t be played until Wednesday night. Following that game, the series returns to its usual every-second-day pattern for the remaining three games.
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We have heard different reasons for the NHL scheduling two days between the second, third, and fourth games. Those reasons vary from conflicting with the Miami Heat NBA playoffs to everything else, from the Kentucky Derby to the Formula One Race in Florida.
The conversations we’ve heard on radio shows like First Up and Leafs’ Lunch have also dealt with which team has the advantage with the days extra days off. The general consensus was the longer breaks worked to the Panthers’ advantage, giving them extra rest from their seven-game Boston series.
We’re not sure we agree with that consensus. While we understand the reasoning behind it, we feel the extra day between games can also benefit the Maple Leafs.
Item Four: Bumps And Bruises & Older Players
First, despite their series going one game fewer and the Maple Leafs having one more day between the end of their round with Tampa, that series was extremely physical. More hits registered in that series than in any other first-round series. We’re sure the Maple Leafs have their own bumps and bruises to deal with.
Second, the Maple Leafs have seven roster players who have played every game in the postseason who are 30 or older. That includes 39-year-old Mark Giordano. The Panthers have three players over 30 who have dressed for all eight of their games.
Does that matter? Giordano’s play in the regular season was stellar. It has not been nearly as great during the postseason. Is age finally a factor for this warrior?
Item Five: Can Preparation Time Make a Difference?
Then there was preparation time. Almost every NHL team has a decent scouting staff and an analytics department that extensively studies the opposition. While we are sure that some attention was paid to the Panthers, we’re guessing more time was spent analyzing and breaking down the Boston Bruins.
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Given that Boston had built a commanding 3-1 lead in their series with Florida, you have to know that the Maple Leafs’ organization was working hard to figure out ways to beat them. The Maple Leafs probably had to do a quick turn in their planning to prepare for the Panthers. Only after the Panthers won Game 6 can we see the Maple Leafs pivoting their attention to Florida.
The time those Maple Leafs’ analytics staffers have had in the background to concentrate solely on Florida has been limited. That, too, is true about the time the players and coaching staff have had to learn their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps it’s nothing, but preparation time for the Maple Leafs’ staff has been minimal at best. Each extra day they get to work on strategy has to benefit the Maple Leafs.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
The fact is that both teams will likely benefit from extra days off between games.
In the end, the schedule is exactly the same for each team. This series will not be decided by how many days these teams have off. It will be decided on the ice, where it should be.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]