It was easily one of the more important games of the season at this point for the Toronto Maple Leafs when they took on the Florida Panthers on Monday night, but the Maple Leafs came up on the short end of a 5-3 loss to a team they have been battling in the standings for most of the season.
While it wasn’t a good night for the Maple Leafs and their fans, there was still a lot to take away from the game looking ahead to the remainder of the season. With that said, here’s a look at what we saw in Monday night’s loss.
He’s been a rock for the Maple Leafs most of the season, but on Monday Frederik Andersen left the contest after a first period collision with Panthers’ forward Frank Vatrano. Vatrano went hard into the Maple Leafs’ net and Andersen was forced to leave the game with what was said to be an upper-body injury.
Following the game, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe confirmed that Andersen went through concussion protocol.
“He’s feeling better from what I’m told,” said Keefe, according to NHL.com. “But we’re just going to have to give him the night and see how he is in the morning.”
Andersen’s absence in the lineup for a prolonged period of time could prove costly for the team as their backup – Michael Hutchinson – hasn’t had a lot of success in net this season. The 29-year-old has a 4-8-1 record in 14 games this season with a 3.62 goals against average and .886 save percentage.
Hutchinson did come in and replace Andersen on Monday and ultimately took the loss once again for the Maple Leafs.
Third Period Breakdown
While the goaltending was a tad suspect near the end of the game, it was the Maple Leafs as a whole that let this one slip away. Just 38 seconds into the final frame, the Maple Leafs took a 3-1 lead on Auston Matthews’ 37th goal of the season.
That quickly changed, however, as the Panthers came back and scored less than two minutes later and followed it up with three more unanswered goals.
This is an issue that the Maple Leafs have dealt with in past campaigns as well – the ability to close out contests. The fact is, this was a must-win game for the Maple Leafs to keep themselves ahead of the Panthers in the standings.
But with the four third-period goals, the Panthers were able to, once again, overtake the Maple Leafs in the divisional standings. While the team didn’t give up too many opportunities in this contest, the Panthers were still able to capitalize and it cost the Maple Leafs in the end.
Even at this point in time, if the Maple Leafs were to make the playoffs, they would have a tough time making a run if they continue to give up third period leads like this – especially to top-tier teams like Boston and Washington.
Panthers Battle With Claws Out
That said, the Panthers seem to be one of the more resilient teams in the NHL this season and Monday was a perfect example of that. The Panthers have been a come-from-behind team all season long and have shown fight in every contest, which is exactly how they’ve got to where they are in the standings to this point in the season.
“We didn’t play up to where we should have in the first two periods,” said Panthers’ forward Mark Pysyk according to the NHL.com article. “We got a little energy going after the second. We didn’t do much that period, so we wanted to come out firing. After giving up that first one (early in the third), we could have rolled over and died but everybody on the bench knew just to dig in and we bounced back and took it to them. It’s a huge win. It was a big game, we knew that coming in.”
That seems to be the mentality night in and night out with the Panthers. They’ve scored the third-highest goals in the Eastern Conference and Evgenii Dadonov is tied for eighth in the league with 10 third period goals this season.
While it’s not great to be playing from behind on a nightly basis, the Panthers have found a way to make it work.
Hats Off to Pysyk
As for Pysyk, he was a big part of the Panthers offence on Monday, scoring three of the team’s five goals. In fact, he opened the scoring for the game at 11:30 of the first period, got the team within one following the Matthews’ tally and put the game out of reach with the insurance goal late in the final frame.
The hat trick was the first of his NHL career and almost doubled his goal total for the season, giving him seven to go along with six assists in 40 games this season.
While he’s not used to being the go-to guy for offence, the 28-year-old defenceman single-handedly helped the Panthers take home the win against the Maple Leafs.
Big Three Remain Hot
It wasn’t the outcome they were looking for, but the silver lining for the Maple Leafs was that their big three (or four) up front remained hot on the offensive side of the puck.
Mitch Marner tallied two assists to bring his season total to 39. Matthews scored his 37th as he looks ahead to 50. John Tavares got on the board with his 19th of the year on the power play and William Nylander extended his career-high to 25 goals on the season.
While it was good on the offensive side of the puck, the talented roster the Maple Leafs have on paper continued to struggle defensively giving up five goals and nullifying the fact that they put in three of their own.
Consistency has been a problem for the team this season and, while it’ll be great to see the offensive numbers continue to climb for the Maple Leafs, they have to find a way to stop the puck on the defensive end moving forward – especially if they want to make the playoffs, let alone make a deep run when they get there.
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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.