John Tavares sent the Toronto Maple Leafs into the second round with his overtime winner in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, while Carter Verhaeghe helped the Florida Panthers complete a stunning upset of the 65-win Boston Bruins in Game 7.
Although many were anticipating the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins to advance to the second round, this Leafs-Panthers matchup pits two explosive offenses against each other in what should be a heavyweight tilt.
Here are nine factors that will determine how the series unfolds.
Matthew Tkachuk is the best player in the series, Mitch Marner may draw the assignment
Tkachuk is the primary reason why the Panthers stunned the Bruins and he’ll likely emerge as a Hart Trophy finalist when the voting is tabulated. Tkachuk in this form is the best player remaining in the Eastern Conference and though Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has often been guarded about his line combinations, we’re going to assume that Mitch Marner will shadow Tkachuk, on a line with John Tavares and Calle Jarnkrok — at least initially.
Florida controls 63.3 percent of the expected goals when Tkachuk is on the ice at 5-on-5, so Marner may be glued to him, while Auston Matthews will be expected to outscore the Verhaeghe line.
Tkachuk isn’t just a hypereffective, bruising power forward. He has incredibly soft hands and patience, as shown on his Game 5 overtime winner against Boston.
He’s opportunistic, has sneaky top-end speed that allows him to deceptively sneak behind defenses, and he’s capable of scoring back-breaking highlight-reel goals. And of course, he constantly wins battles along the boards while getting under the skin of his opponents. It’ll be a complete five-man effort to suppress Tkachuk but Marner’s line should get the assignment initially.
Marner registered 11 points of his own through the opening round and the likely Selke finalist showcased an innate ability to strip the puck off the league’s best players throughout the season. Tkachuk should be no different, even if he’ll try to rattle the undersized Marner physically.
Tavares should be able to account for Panthers centre Sam Bennett relatively easily and can provide additional support to Marner on puck battles, while communicating switches when the Panthers take over the offensive zone at 5-on-5. Keefe has first change through the opening two games, but he’ll likely use the Marner line to keep Tkachuk at bay.
Alex Lyon caught fire at the end of the regular season, pushing the Panthers over the hump to gain entry into the playoffs. Once the big dance started, Lyon struggled against the Bruins and after three games, Panthers head coach Paul Maurice had enough, electing to go with the veteran Bobrovsky for the remainder of the series. Although Bobrovsky posted -0.2 goals saved above average in four games, he shut the door when it mattered most and knocked off a record-setting team for the second time in five years.
Samsonov also struggled for large segments of the Maple Leafs’ first-round series against the Lightning but he was arguably the best player on the ice in Game 6. Samsonov outdueled countryman Andrei Vasilevskiy and is now tasked with knocking off another goaltender that he surely looked to up as a prospect in Russia. Both goaltenders in this series are capable of stealing a game but they’re also prone to letting in terrible goals at inopportune times.
Who will win this matchup: the 26-year-old with the better body of work over the regular season, or the 34-year-old, two-time Vezina winner who often struggles badly during the postseason?
Will Matthew Knies continue to be one of the Maple Leafs’ best forwards?
Knies was playing college hockey on April 8. It would’ve been unreasonable to expect him to graduate to an impactful role in the postseason without an extended trial run in the regular season. And yet Knies rose to the challenge, entering the lineup when Michael Bunting earned a three-game suspension for a high hit on Erik Cernak.
Knies’ speed, size and ability to seal off the wall paid immediate dividends for the Maple Leafs, as he skated around and over Lightning defensemen and didn’t shy away from physicality. He was on the ice for all three of Toronto’s overtime goals, registering the primary assist on Tavares’ instantly iconic Game 6 winner, finishing with three primary assists in five games.
It’s a small sample but the Maple Leafs controlled 57 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 when Knies was on the ice. He’s proven to be adaptable and his speed in transition ought to be worrisome for the Panthers.
The moment clearly isn’t too big for him and he’s earned a promotion to the top line, but we have to remember that he’s still a 20-year-old rookie. Can Knies defy the odds and give the Maple Leafs some extra potency and flexibility that were lacking from previous versions of the team?
Matthews’ shooting regression issues are long over
Matthews is playing at a superstar level and he’s shown unrelenting commitment to all facets of the game. Matthews scored two timely goals to cue the Game 4 comeback and scored the opening goal in Game 6, where he blocked four shots and generated 11 scoring chances. Toronto controls 60 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 when he’s on the ice, and he’s beginning to resemble the form that led him to the Hart Trophy last season.
Matthews is tied for third league-wide with five playoff goals but it’s not just his scoring output that stands out. He’s shielding off defenders with the puck, his mere presence creates a gravity effect for his linemates to get open, he’s become an elite shot blocker and he simply wears out his opponents.
Throughout the opening round, Matthews shot at 21 percent, a slightly unsustainable rate that’s also closer to his career averages than his last two playoff outputs. More simply, Matthews is resembling the dominant regular season player he’s been his entire career.
Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov has a reputation as one of the NHL’s best defensive forwards but even still, Matthews is the superior player here and he ought to win this individual matchup. Tampa Bay elected to place Anthony Cirelli, another elite two-way force, against Matthews and while the neutral zone was largely clogged up, Matthews still broke through and generated an abundance of chances. Expect Matthews to exhaust Barkov throughout the series.
Maple Leafs have the special teams advantage
Toronto boasts the far superior penalty kill led by Marner, David Kampf and TJ Brodie. It was the 12th-best unit during the regular season (81.9 percent) and was the ninth-best unit through the first-round, killing 76.9 percent of the penalties against Tampa Bay. Florida finished 23rd in the regular season at a 76 percent clip, and then finished at a woeful 59.3 percent rate against Boston.
Ryan O’Reilly has rejoined the Leafs’ No. 1 power-play unit.
William Nylander was back with that group in Game 6. He returns to PP2 alongside Michael Bunting, Matthew Knies, Calle Järnkrok, and Mark Giordano.
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) May 1, 2023
Toronto’s power play is lethal — the second-ranked unit from the regular season scored at a 28.6 percent mark against Tampa Bay and is slated to expose Florida every time it heads to the box. Florida scored at a 25 percent rate on the power play against Boston and Toronto will have to remain disciplined, but it can take solace with a seemingly infinite roster of penalty killers ready. If the Panthers can’t stay out of penalty trouble, it will prove fatal.
Rielly was arguably Toronto’s MVP in the first round, authoring a four-assist performance in a crushing Game 2 rout while scoring the overtime winner in Game 3. His defence partner, Luke Schenn, did all the little things right and was tremendous in calmly facilitating zone exits and they’re playing their best hockey of the season.
Toronto will need ancillary offense to advance and Rielly will need to submit this type of offensive output again. He’s seeing the ice better than he has all year and the Panthers have to be aware of his tendency to pinch aggressively when the moment calls for it.
Montour scored the game-tying goal in Game 7, finished with five goals and three assists in the Boston series and is coming off a 73-point season that seemingly came out of nowhere. He’s playing below-average defense and though he’s a scoring threat, the Maple Leafs will look to expose any overcommitments from the Panthers’ blue line.
Both Rielly and Montour notched eight points during the opening round and will be counted upon to generate necessary secondary offense.
An unsung hero for each team
Noel Acciari, along with Schenn, provided the Maple Leafs with the toughness many critics thought they were lacking. Acciari doesn’t just hit anyone in sight, he also scored two key goals during the opening round and provided a scoring touch that was absent from the Maple Leafs’ bottom six. Look for “Cookie” to score a goal during a crucial juncture of the series.
Florida has underrated scoring depth and Eetu Luostarinen is a prime example of a player who goes under the radar due to market size. Luostarinen registered two goals and five assists in seven games, has a wrist shot with velocity, plays in all situations and can be moved throughout the lineup. Expect the forward to make himself known league-wide with some secondary offense and tenacious forechecking.
Will Justin Holl remain in the press box?
Holl was on the ice for 14 goals in all situations before being benched in Game 6 for Timothy Liljegren. Keefe has to make sure Holl never sees the ice again this spring, whether it’s Liljegren, Erik Gustafsson or even Conor Timmins in the lineup ahead of him. Holl played well in November and December but those days are long over. He cannot return to the playoff lineup barring injuries.
Maple Leafs, Panthers both believe intangibles are working in their favour
Toronto finally broke a 19-year curse after defeating Tampa Bay and for this group specifically, it represents a turning point in its story arc. And now they’ve won one round, why not four?
“Just to get over the hump, it’s huge mentally for us,” Matthews said via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox after Game 6.
On the other hand, Florida knocked off the best regular-season team of the modern era. Although the Maple Leafs are a superior team on paper, with a 19-point advantage during the regular season, the Panthers rightfully believe they can beat anyone.
“The fact that we were able to do what we did after what they did all year, they’re an unreal team and the best I’ve played in my NHL career. The fact that we were able to beat them was crazy,” Tkachuk said after eliminating the Bruins.
Maple Leafs in six games.