For the Toronto Maple Leafs, their game on Thursday night against the Florida Panthers was a must win game. Going in, the Panthers sat just two points back of the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division standings with a game in hand. In other words, had the Maple Leafs lost they would’ve fallen out of a playoff spot once again.
While the team did fall behind 3-1 early in the game, the Maple Leafs battled back in a big way and took home the two points with a 5-3 victory. While it still wasn’t a complete performance, it was one that they needed in that moment.
With that, and the Maple Leafs holding a four point lead in the standings, here’s what we can take away from their win on Thursday.
Matthews Led by Example
A goal and an assist. That’s how Auston Matthews finished a solid performance against the Panthers on Thursday. He led the Maple Leafs in shots with six and had two hits – including one on the play that eventually led to his 44th goal of the season.
What the numbers won’t tell you though is that Matthews seemed dialled in the entire game – or at least the 23:18 of it that he was on the ice. It’s that kind of effort that the Maple Leafs need from him and his teammates on a nightly basis.
He was all over the ice and won a few puck battles in the offensive end which led to multiple opportunities for the Maple Leafs throughout the game. Looking back at his numbers again, he did finish with two takeaways and a blocked shot to go along with his two-point night.
Three Too Many
As for what the Maple Leafs did give up, it was an early deficit that they were forced to overcome as the team and Frederik Andersen surrendered three goals in the first period. With three starters out from their defence corps, the Maple Leafs have scratched together a make-shift group that includes a number of players who started the year in the AHL with the Marlies.
Heck, even recently re-acquired Calle Rosen suited up for the Maple Leafs on Thursday. Still, the Maple Leafs need to find a way to keep the puck out of their net going forward – especially if they want to hold on to that playoff spot.
Giving up three goals on a nightly basis just won’t cut it and while they were able to battle back and win this one, that won’t be the case if it’s the same story each and every game. That said, two of the three goals were tough for Andersen to stop, but there is one that he surely would’ve liked back.
Panthers’ Third Goal
While the first two goals simply can’t be put on the shoulders of Andersen, the third Panthers goal was one that he likely would want back. At 12:36 of the first period, Noel Acciari scored his 20th goal of the season coming down the side boards in the Maple Leafs’ zone.
Acciari fired the puck on the Maple Leafs net from the bad angle and it got past Andersen to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead before the Maple Leafs came storming back.
Although it surely wasn’t one that Andersen would like to admit to letting in, he does deserve some credit for shutting the door the rest of the way. He saw 18 shots over the final two frames and stopped all of them, allowing his team to get back in the game and steal two points from Florida.
A Career Year for Hyman
As for one of the players who were able to contribute to the Maple Leafs comeback win, Zach Hyman continued to push towards a career-high in points with another two-point performance for the 27-year-old.
Hyman tallied his 20th goal of the season, one shy of his career-high 21 set last season in 71 games for the Maple Leafs. He also tallied an assist, giving him 16 on the season which is nine shy of his career-high 25 set back in 2017-18.
Through 46 games this season, Hyman has 36 points which is five shy of his career-high from last season and an average of 0.78 points per game. At that pace, and with the Maple Leafs having just 17 games left in the regular season, Hyman is on pace for 49 points this season which would be a new career-high for the gritty forward – a player the Maple Leafs need in their lineup during the home stretch.
The Kids Are Alright
Rasums Sandin. Timothy Liljegren. Travis Dermott. Justin Holl. All four of them suited up for the Maple Leafs in the must-win affair and, for the most part, played their part well in helping the Maple Leafs come away with the win.
Holl added the insurance marker on an empty net shot from his own end late in the game, and aside from Liljegren’s minus-two and five minutes of ice-time, the Maple Leafs’ young defence did alright against a tough Panthers’ lineup.
They will be relied upon moving forward as well, with Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci on the mend, while Jake Muzzin will be out for the next four weeks.
Also Worth Noting…
The Maple Leafs did go with seven defensemen on Thursday with both Liljegren and Rosen playing under 10 minutes. Tyson Barrie led all Maple Leafs players with 25:21 of ice-time and had three blocked shots in his effort to help the Maple Leafs young back end.
Finally, Kasperi Kapanen seems to be finding what helps his offensive game. For the second time in four games, the Maple Leafs’ forward had a goal and a fight which surely fired up his squad. While he’s not known for his physicality all the time, Dermott did admit that Kapanen has been a “little rocket” over the past few games, according to Jonas Siegel.
While the win and the four-point lead in the standings is surely a good thing for the Maple Leafs, they’ll need another big performance on Saturday as they take on a promising team in the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.
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Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.