The following will be a weird sentence for hockey fans to read. But rest assured, it is 100% true. The Toronto Maple Leafs are playing in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, where they find themselves taking on the Florida Panthers? Yes, the Florida Panthers who barely made it into the playoffs.
Ending a 19-year drought in which the Maple Leafs were unable to advance past the first round, they were finally able to close out a series as they took out the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. Despite some rocky stretches during the series, the roster held on and took advantage of some huge contributions from certain players.
The Panthers are coming off of a huge accomplishment which saw them come back from a 3–1 series deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in seven games. The same Bruins team that set the all-time record for best regular season in NHL history with 65 wins and 135 points.
Have the Maple Leafs finally slain their playoff demons? And, how sustainable is the underdog story the Florida Panthers are trying to continue?
Round 1 playoff stats and head-to-head matchup
|TEAM/STAT||W||L||OTL||GF||xGF%||GA||CF%||PP%||PK%||Record vs. Opponent (regular season)|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||4||2||0||23||49.7%||21||45.9%||28.6%||76.2%||3–0–1|
Expected goals for percentage (xGF%) and Corsi for percentage (CF%) stats are in all situations from moneypuck.com.
Toronto Maple Leafs Round 1 recap
CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? The Toronto Maple Leafs, after a 19-year drought, have finally made it past the first round of the playoffs. This includes losing in the first round in each of the past six seasons. But, with a multitude of factors at play, the Maple Leafs have won a playoff series as they took down the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
It did not look promising early on, as Toronto was blown out 7–3 in the first game. But a strong response with a 7–2 win in Game 2 was proof that the Maple Leafs meant business this season. That was the first of three consecutive victories for Toronto that set the tone on the way to one of the most frightening things to say to a Maple Leafs fan. They had a 3–1 series lead. With a loss in Game 5, the hockey world was getting ready to unleash the trash talk as it looked as if Toronto might be unable to close out the series yet again.
But in Game 6, John Tavares became a hero in Maple Leafs folklore with an overtime winner that just squeaked through Andrei Vasilevskiy.
What helped Toronto finally make it through a playoff series? Some key factors in this matchup are the players acquired at the deadline. Ryan O’Reilly was a key player in this series, notably with three points, including scoring the late tying goal and adding an assist on the overtime winner, in Game 3.
Florida Panthers Round 1 recap
This Panthers team deserves a ton of credit and the utmost respect for finding a way to compete and beat the Bruins. This is the team that squeaked into the playoffs in the dying seconds of the regular season off of a last minute hot streak after spending most of the season well short of a wild card spot. But with an incredible team effort and some excellent game management, they found way to succeed.
The first four games went exactly as expected. The Bruins easily won three of those four games, and if it weren’t for a six-goal performance in Game 2, the 16–11 goal differential would have been even worse.
But then, something strange happened. A massive momentum shift throughout game five gave the Panthers a second victory in the series, as they took this one in overtime. Then they put up seven goals against the Bruins in Game 6, something only one other team was able to do this season.
This set the stage for an unexpected seventh game in which the Panthers, after having led for a good portion of the game, found themselves down by one late in the third. A goal with just under a minute left sent the game to overtime where Florida dominated extra time until finally putting away the series winning goal.
Considering how the first prediction against the Panthers went, saying the Maple Leafs have a better roster on paper clearly will not mean much. But it is true, the depth in the skating positions the Leafs have surpasses that of what Florida can ice. The Panthers, however, may have a slight advantage in net.
Ilya Samsonov has better stats through the first series, but his reputation in the playoffs and his tendency to be wildly inconsistent is a knock against him. Sergei Bobrovsky has taken the crease back for the Panthers at the moment, though Alex Lyon has a better statline and may get a chance to play in a fresh series. Of Florida’s goalies, the former has more pedigree and name value, and the latter has been hot over the past month and was a key factor of getting the Panthers into the playoffs in the first place.
Toronto’s offence will need to test their opponent’s goalies early and often. This should be no problem, considering they just managed to give Vasilevskiy a mediocre statline in the playoffs for once.
The depth the Maple Leafs possess here will be crucial in overpowering the Panthers. As previously mentioned, the players Toronto brought in at the trade deadline have filled out their roster in such a way that they have quality players getting scratched due to roster size limitations.
For the Panthers, a huge part of their success can be attributed to Matthew Tkachuk. He was noted to be possibly Florida’s best chance in the first round preview, and he remains that way after his performance in round one. It has been clear for years that he is quite possibly the best in the league at managing the game’s energy and momentum, and he showed just how valuable he is through the first round.
Florida needs to send Tkachuk out against the likes of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews to get under their skin and try to swing the momentum in the Panthers’ favour early. If some of Toronto’s offensive power can be stymied by his antics, it gives Florida a chance.
Toronto Maple Leafs versus Florida Panthers prediction
Credit where credit is due, the Panthers will not go down easy in this series. And the energy they’ve gained from their battle in the first round will help them start strong. But it is still hard to pick them over the Maple Leafs this season, who appear to be on their way to slaying the dragon, so to speak. The style of that that Florida utilized to beat the Bruins will also do well at beating the Maple Leafs, but Toronto still has the advantage.
4–2 Maple Leafs