Welcome to another addition of my Leafs series preview. Can't believe I get to do two of these in the same year!
Two weeks ago, I published the first round series preview between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, where I predicted the Leafs would win (in five, ah well) which was correct. However, I don't think I got how the Leafs would win correct.
How the Leafs beat the Lightning
I thought the Leafs were going to win this series through dominating at 5v5 and limiting special teams and goaltending losses. That was, frankly, not how it went down.
Over the course of the series, the Leafs only took 45% of the shots, 48% of the expected goals, and 48% of the real goals at 5v5. The Leafs lost the 5v5 game, but won the series with nine goals with the man advantage, buoyed by three goals at 6v5 with the net empty (two of which were late in games). The Lightning on the other side, scored five power play goals and one empty netter. They only scored one power play goal on 10 opportunities in the final five games of the series.
What I really think did it was magic. Fate. Clutch goals in critical moments. Not getting down or giving up. And whatever else you need to score three overtime winning goals (Rielly, Kerfoot, Tavares) on the road against Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Leafs got hot, they were lucky at the right times (especially stealing Game #3) and rode it to victory.
Now onto the Panthers, who got similarly beaten by the Boston Bruins in shots, but less so in expected goals, and lost the battle in real goals ever so slightly. In the final four games of the series, the Bruins scored nine power play goals and only six at 5v5 – that was how they lost. We'll see what the Leafs can do at even strength and especially on the power play if their penalty kill is that open for business.
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The Leafs Lines
Matthew Knies - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Calle Järnkrok - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Michael Bunting - Ryan O'Reilly - Noel Acciari
Zach Aston-Reese - David Kämpf - Alex Kerfoot
Morgan Rielly - Luke Schenn
Jake McCabe - TJ Brodie
Mark Giordano - Timothy Liljegren
The Panthers Lines
Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair
Nick Cousins - Sam Bennett - Matthew Tkachuk
Eetu Luostarinen - Anton Lundell - Sam Reinhart
Colin White - Eric Staal 🏳️🌈 - Zac Dalpe
Gustav Forsling - Aaron Ekblad
Marc Staal 🏳️🌈 - Brandon Montour
Josh Mahura - Radko Gudas
Like last time, I will be looking at scoring outputs at 5v5 (prorated to 82 games).
Knies-Matthews-Nylander vs Verhaeghe-Barkov-Duclair
Toronto: 0+28+22 = 50 goals
Florida: 28+14+4 = 46 goals
As we know, Matthew Knies only showed up in Toronto at the end of the season and played a total of three regular season games for them. He has a much bigger playoff resume and experience at Amalie Arena than anywhere else. Anthony Duclair spent most of the season recovering from needing surgery on his achilles tendon. Is Knies equal to Duclair offensively? What can be expected from the two? Who knows how that aspect of these two first lines is going to pan out.
Beyond the wild cards, the Leafs with Nylander have a strong advantage offensively over Barkov and the Panthers first line. The former Leaf Verhaeghe is coming off a career year where he scored 42 goals, his 28 at 5v5 is enough to saw off Matthews following a down year for the American superstar. We have since seen Matthews come alive in the playoffs with five goals in six games. Remember from my previous article that Matthews had 43 prorated 5v5 goals last season, that's enough to beat the Panthers top line all on his own. And that's why Matthews is so important to this team.
Järnkrok-Tavares-Marner vs Cousins-Bennett-Tkachuk
Toronto: 18+17+16 = 51 goals
Florida: 9+12+23 = 44 goals
I don't need to remind you who Nick Cousins is, but it might be pleasant to hear he injured his arm in Game 7 and might not play. Matthew Tkachuk is the real danger on this line, he carries his two linemates and containing him will be very key.
Not only does this line on paper (technically) outscore the first line, but Calle Järnkrok is the leading scorer of it at 5v5 (again, prorated). The Leafs are happy to shift their lines around as they did in the last series, but this is what they'll start with. Two stars and one solid player having a great year is as good of a second line as you could ask for.
Bunting-O'Reilly-Acciari vs Luostarinen-Lundell-Reinhart
Toronto: 15-16-8 = 39 goals
Florida: 9+10-9 = 28 goals
I don't want to sound ungrateful over what the Leafs have, but I desperately wanted Lundell and Reinhart when the first was getting drafted and the latter was getting himself out of Buffalo. Sigh, I'm not going to like it when this line does well in this series. I think the Panthers have a strong two-way third line here that can win puck battles and move the puck really well.
Fortunately for the Leafs, they have a comparably good third line as well, centred by Ryan O'Reilly. Whether it's been Knies, Kerfoot, or Järnkrok on his left wing, ROR with Acciari have made a very positive checking third line that has gotten the Leafs out of a lot of lopsided stretches of play. We talk about some defenders being stoppers of plays, the Leafs have this up front with their third line.
I doubt these two lines will see much of each other if the coaches can help it. They'll be trying to stop the top-six lines on the opposing teams.
Aston-Reese-Kämpf-Kerfoot vs White-Staal-Dalpe*
Toronto: 6-7-11 = 24 goals
Florida: 8+13-12 = 33 goals
Dalpe had two goals in 14 games for the Panthers this year as a call up. He prorated to 12 on the season and has scored one goal in four games so far in the playoffs. He might not be the most impactful player, but he's worth keeping an eye on.
I gotta give the Panthers credit for putting together a better fourth line with respect to goals than the Leafs. The Leafs fourth line struggled against the Lightning at 5v5, getting about 35% of the shot share over six games. That is going to be a weak spot for the team and likely part of the reason to run 11/7 on the road (the other reason is to be more selective with Liljegren's minutes).
For the comparison here, I'm going to look at the average expected goals and real goals for both members of each pairing when they're on the ice and I'll come up an xGF% and GF% for each pair. My numbering should incorporate more minutes and better data than a standard WOWY.
I will say off the top that the Panthers don't have the same defense structure as the Leafs or Lightning for that matter. They have a third pair that plays mostly with the third and fourth line – hence their strong on ice stats. The top three offensive defenders (Ekglad, Forsling, and Montour) play a lot with Verhaeghe, Barkov, and Tkachuk, with Marc Staal mostly playing with whoever needs a partner.
From what I can tell, I don't think Paul Maurice is maximizing zone starts as all the forwards get about as many offensive and defensive zone starts as each other, except for Barkov and his linemates who get slightly more defensive zone shifts.
Rielly-Schenn vs Forsling-Ekblad
Average xGF/60, Average xGA/60, Combined xGF%, Combined GF%
Toronto: 2.87 for, 2.71 against, 51%, 49%
Florida: 3.15 for, 2.92 against, 52%, 51%
Rielly and Schenn have impressed in the playoffs so far, with Rielly stepping up in a big way offensively for yet another playoffs and Schenn doing his job of staying back and engaging the opponents really well. Big credit to this pair for finding success.
And despite being underwater in shots against the Lightning, the pair was 58% positive in expected goals. I believe a lot of that comes from clearing the front of their own net and not allowing high danger rebound chances. Something Justin Holl fell victim to, so much so that he's out of the lineup.
Forsling and Ekblad is the main offensive force for the Panthers, along with Brandon Montour. You'll often see Montour with Ekblad late in games when the Panthers need a goal. Ekblad is a former first overall pick, while Forsling was a waiver pickup. They've turned into a good pair, both players finding success in their own right.
All three defense pairs have similar shot metrics, around 56% from the regular season. However, this pair has the biggest drop from shots to expected goals. Some of it is offensively when they're on the ice as their unit is not as efficient in turning shots into expected goals (0.048 xG/CF) as much as lines with Rielly (0.053) or Mikhail Sergachev (0.052) are for example, but the biggest hit comes defensively (0.055 xG/CA).
McCabe-Brodie vs Staal-Montour
Toronto: 2.91 for, 2.32 against, 56%, 62%
Florida: 3.16 for, 2.81 against, 53%, 56%
The Staal-Montour piring for the Panthers are significantly better in their own end and keep up their 56% shot rate through into expected goals. Again, Montour spends lots of time with the top forwards through shifts with one of the top pair guys, while Staal plays with everyone up front.
Staal is on the second PK unit with Gudas, while Montour is on the first PP unit with Ekblad. Yes, they're probably the last team in the NHL to use two defenders on the power play.
The Leafs shutdown pair got a lot of flack in the Lightning series, TJ Brodie especially. While some of it is warranted, he bobbled the puck a lot, it should be noted that Brodie got the most minutes for the Leafs every night because he was tasked with going up against the Lightning's first and second lines.
In that task, he also got very few offensive starts (later in the series he got a few shifts with Rielly) and that tanked his shot rate. Considering what he had to work with (27% zone starts and 40% shot share), what he produced (51% expected goals, 60% actual goals) is remarkable.
McCabe also steps up on guys at the blueline and that's cool. I only say that because he does it cleanly (don't ask a Lightning fan what clean means).
Giordano-Liljegren vs Mahura-Gudas
Toronto: 2.96 for, 2.47 against, 55%, 58%
Florida: 3.07 for, 2.30 against, 57%, 58%
The Panthers third pair (likely thanks to their elite corsi bottom six) have killer numbers in shots and goals. They were 57% in shots and expected goals, and 58% in real goals on the season, and they carried that into the playoffs; in 60 minutes they put up 51% shots and 60% expected goals on the Boston Bruins. Kudos to them.
One last thing about this pair is that it has Radko Gudas on it and I'm terrified he's going to brain someone on the Leafs. I'm shocked he only took one minor in the Bruins series considering how many power plays they got. Maybe he'll fill up his quota in this series. Gudas led the Panthers in minor penalties this season (fifth in the league behind Dahlin, Marchand, Bunting, and Dubois).
For the Leafs, the one change they made on the back end was putting Timothy Liljegren in for Game 6, which as well as you could hope for a 24-year-old who's playoff experience is a whopping three games now. He got buried in shots, but all his offensive zone starts went to Erik Gustafsson. Considering what he had to work with, and how he looked on the ice, he was alright. He earned a spot in the Game 1 lineup tonight without the seventh defenseman crutch, so we'll see how it goes.
This column is tricky because the Panthers swapped goalies midway through their first round series, going from Alex Lyon to Sergei Bobrovsky. We know Ilya Samsonov beat Andrei Vasilevskiy with a .900 save percentage as Vasy struggled this year. We'll see what kind of form Bobrovsky is in. He's been one of the poster-goalies for wildly fluctuating seasons.
I'd feel silly sharing any numbers because there's no telling which version of any goalie in this series we're going to get. There is an equal chance Samsonov and Bobrovsky have dueling shutouts going into overtime in Game 1 as there is Lyon and Woll as the Game 7 starters. Heck, maybe we even see both happen.
The Panthers led the league in penalties taken this year, so it's actually no surprise the Bruins had so many chances with the man advantage. In classic referee fashion, the Panthers were also third in penalties drawn this year. So we have another Tampa Bay clone. Great.
As for how the two-defenseman power play works for the Panthers, it's not bad. They score at a rate of 0.27 goals per two minutes on the power play (regular season) which was 14th in the league. The Leafs for reference scored at a rate of 0.32 goals per two minutes, good for fourth.
As for the penalty kills, the Panthers 0.30 goals against per two minutes is pretty high, while the Leafs sat comfortably at 0.21 goals against per two minutes. Significantly better. In the playoffs, the Panthers gave up 11 goals in 44 minutes to Pastrnak and co, while the Leafs allowed five goals in 30 minutes to the Lightning.
The Leafs are in a good position here as the team with home ice advantage against a team they've had success against in the regular season. Toronto will not want to get stuck chasing the puck all game again like they did for most of the Lightning series. To put it lightly, it's not a recipe for success. I don't know enough about the Panthers to know exactly how they can win the possession battle, but I'm sure we'll figure it out pretty quickly.
The key to this series will be to do something the Lightning and Bruins couldn't; hold leads. The Panthers and Leafs both scored when they needed to and it sparked shocking comebacks for both teams. If the Leafs are the ones with the advantage in this series, they'll need to make stops when it counts, especially against the potent offensive players the Panthers have. And vice versa, if the Leafs are behind, they'll need to figure out how to get around lots of good two-way players (Barkov, Reinhart, Lundell, etc).
It'll be messy, but I think the Leafs will do it. This team is going places. Go Leafs Go!