MAPLE LEAFS (27-36-11) at PANTHERS (43-27-5)
Tonight marks the 2nd game of a back to back against the Floridian teams with a game against the streaking Panthers. In the past 5 games, Florida’s gone 3-2, including a 4-1 win against the Leafs. Impressively, the Leafs have managed to go 3-2 as well, notably edging out the Ducks in overtime last Thursday. This season may have been a complete disaster for the Blue and White but, as of recently, they’ve shown the have a promising future, despite the injuries they’ve had to endure.
In the last meeting between these two teams, the story line was all about how the young, inexperienced Leafs would fare against the ageless wonder. While that may remain to be a story line, it won’t be quite so dominant. The impressive play of Reilly Smith, Vincent Trochek and Jonathan Huberdeau will only add to the threat posed by Jagr, Hudler and Jokinen. One story line that could continue to dominate into tonight’s game is the likelihood of Nazem Kadri finishing as the league leader in penalties drawn for a second consecutive year. There have been accusations that Kadri is known to be a diver, as a result of the recent news. Kadri responded with “Not something nice to hear. People are going to have their opinion and that’s not going to change the way I play”. Mike Babcock refused to address the media on that situation, although he expects that the refs have been made aware of him leading the league in penalties drawn – which will more than likely be a situation in the next few games until something else happens for the league to focus on.
Despite continuing to play with a depleted blueline, the Leafs lineup is starting to look more like an NHL roster than it had a month ago. To be honest, I was never a fan of Milan Michalek in Ottawa, and seeing him on the top line still worries me. I’m unsure if he can keep up with Kadri and Grabner speed-wise, as he’s slowed down considerably in the past few seasons. However, having Bozak and Kadri returning to the lineup have been definite boosts but, this continues to be a try-out for guys like Hyman, Brown, Nylander, Valiev and Corrado. The kids have been putting out a very strong showing since adapting to the fast pace game, as well as to Babcock’s expectations of his team. Almost too good for the tank. As of yesterday, the Leafs remained behind Edmonton for the best odds at drafting first overall. This changing of the guard, so to speak, only occurring once the kids were brought up and started winning games. While Matthews is probably everyone’s target, Laine, Puljujarvi, Alexander Nylander or Chychrun/Juolevi would be a pretty good consolation prize, but that’s just me.
For the team to be successful against Florida, they’ll need to have one of the tightest games defensively they’ve had recently. It won’t be easy to keep Jagr contained let alone Huberdeau, Smith, Trochek, Jokinen, Hudler, et al. Bernier will need to have a strong showing as well. His projected counterpart, Luongo, has been playing some really good hockey lately – being a strong reason why they’ve maintained their position atop the Atlantic Division. After their win against Tampa this weekend, Jakub Kindl said that Luongo deserves much more credit for their wins than he’s been getting. Aaron Ekblad certainly hasn’t fallen into the sophomore slump that many 2nd year NHLers fall into, arguably being the Panthers best defenseman this season. It was insinuated yesterday that Erik Gudbranson and Derek MacKenzie could rejoin the Panthers for tonight’s game, which could put a dagger into the Leafs attempts to upset the motivated Florida team. Both players have been out with foot injuries and haven’t yet been cleared for practice but, according to Gerard Gallant, they’re pretty close to returning.
It certainly won’t help the Leafs cause that the Panthers are feeling even more motivated to play well and make a long run in the playoffs after a passionate speech by captain Willie Mitchell yesterday morning. It has been reported that Mitchell is currently mulling a decision to retire. If a team needed any more motivation to put themselves into the best possible position heading into the playoffs than a top seed, then it would be playing well for a teammate, a brother, that can’t lineup next to them night in and night out. You’ve seen it time and time again where a team rallies to win for a meaningful teammate, and that could be what gives the Panthers that extra edge.
“To have him out there giving us a little speech before practice heading into the playoffs, it’s good for the young guys especially and everybody can learn from him” – Vincent Trochek
This will be the 2nd of 3 match ups between the two teams within 3 weeks. The season finale will be April 4th – the fourth last game in this dismal Toronto season.
It was announced last night that Harvard senior Jimmy Vesey will be exercising his rights to become a UFA come August 15th, in lieu of signing with Nashville, the team he was originally drafted to in the 3rd round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The Leafs might be over #StamkosWatch but there are rumours that the Buds are planning to push hard for the future UFA…
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Milan Michalek – Nazem Kadri – Michael Grabner
Zach Hyman – William Nylander – PA Parenteau
Brad Boyes – Tyler Bozak – Connor Brown
Colin Greening – Brooks Laich – Ben Smith
Martin Marincin – Morgan Rielly
Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick
Rinat Valiev – Frank Corrado
Jonathan Huberdeau – Aleksander Barkov – Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen – Vincent Trocheck – Reilly Smith
Jiri Hudler – Nick Bjugstad – Teddy Purcell
Garrett Wilson – Greg McKegg – Logan Shaw
Brian Campbell – Aaron Ekblad
Dmitry Kulikov – Steve Kampfer
Jakub Kindl – Alex Petrovic
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Gdiff (5v5) — -27
Gdiff (All) — -39
CF% (5v5) – 51.9
PP% – 14.6
PK% – 80.4
Gdiff (5v5) — +23
Gdiff (All) — +29
CF% (5v5) – 48.2
PP% – 17.2
PK% – 80.8