Maple Leafs leave Florida with plenty to smile about despite loss

Nick Bjugstad beat Frederik Andersen in the shootout and the Florida Panthers defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs.

SUNRISE, Fla. – Result aside, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a lot to smile about on their way out of BB&T Center.

You could see it in Mike Babcock’s demeanour when he came upon Roberto Luongo and enthusiastically chided him by saying: "What are you doing? You’re still good!" – this, after Luongo’s Florida Panthers handed the Leafs a 2-1 shootout loss on Wednesday night.

A team with as much offensive firepower as Toronto knows that it’s likely to come out on the right side of the ledger when generating 44 shots on goal and holding a 56-49 edge in attempts at even strength.

"Yeah," said winger James van Riemsdyk. "Forty shots. I think that says it all."

The most interesting subplot of the night saw Babcock toss all four of his forward lines into the blender. He was concerned about a potential mismatch against Aleksander Barkov’s dominant unit and wanted to make sure he didn’t get caught with Panthers coach Bob Boughner holding last change.

It prompted him to move Patrick Marleau back to the middle to create a deeper centre lineup with Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak.

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Barkov wound up playing a little more than nine minutes head-to-head against Matthews at even strength and was out-attempted 11-6 in the process. Bozak managed to hold serve during his three minutes against the big Finn, who enjoyed more success in limited time against Kadri and Marleau but was kept off the scoresheet.

This experiment could be labelled a success.

"I was just trying to make sure that [Barkov] was playing against the right people," said Babcock. "They get to jump you on the road a little bit and we were trying to figure out what would make it go. We knew we were going to adjust as soon as we saw what they were going to do and go from there.

"We had lots of good things tonight."

Other than a slow start, there wasn’t much to nitpick in the performance.

Auston Matthews hit a crossbar to go with his eight shots on goal. Morgan Rielly rang two off the iron, including one late in regulation.

The only puck that got behind Frederik Andersen before the shootout caromed off defenceman Connor Carrick’s right skate and found its way between his legs. He called it "one of those situations where you’ve got to expect the unexpected."

That’s similar to the logic behind Babcock’s constant line shuffling this season. His roster of forwards is as deep as any in the league and allows him to tailor his units for the situation, while keeping the opposing coach guessing.

"We have lots of depth and we have different guys that can slot into different areas," said van Riemsdyk. "We’re getting a look at obviously a lot of those different options that we may have as a team. It was different here the last couple years. I think that was pretty unique how it was the last couple years, where the lines were pretty much static for the whole time.

"You see these different combinations and see how different things work. Once you get towards the end of the year, you have different things that you find work and some that you find didn’t. I think when you can be more versatile and find out some different combinations that may work, I think you always have some different things you can try to maybe spark things up."

Here’s a closer look at how everything shook out against the Panthers, with the most common wingers for each centre listed by even-strength time on ice spent together:

Matthews – Mitch Marner (15:40) and Zach Hyman (14:16).

Bozak – William Nylander (13:04) and van Riemsdyk (13:01).

Kadri – Leo Komarov (9:25), Nikita Soshnikov (4:25), Matt Martin (3:22) and Marleau (2:39).

Marleau – Connor Brown (9:18), Soshnikov (3:48) and Martin (2:13).

The reason those bottom two lines ended up as a mish-mash is because Martin was nailed to the bench for the entire third period while the Leafs pushed for the tying goal. Komarov and Soshnikov saw their minutes curtailed as well.

That strategy paid off when Marleau won a puck battle in the neutral zone and got it up to Brown, who fed Kadri for a goal with six minutes to play in regulation.

It allowed the Leafs to bank another point.

Babcock was quick to mention that he may unveil another new look when his team plays in Carolina on Friday night. It’ll all depend on what challenges the Hurricanes pose. On the road, especially, he certainly seems to enjoy the tinkering.

"What we found – and we did it in Montreal [on Saturday] and no one really noticed – what we did in Montreal is when they were jumping one of our lines we didn’t let them jump it anymore just because we had too many centres and they couldn’t jump it," he explained. "We can run their bench instead of them running ours and us being in a full panic mode and spending lots of time in the D-zone."

That’s a winning strategy even if it doesn’t always result in a win.