Stanley Cup Playoff Push: Which Leafs team will show up against Panthers?

Brian Burke and Elliotte Friedman explain the little-known rule in the NHL that would allow teams to still make trades after the deadline has passed.

With the trade deadline behind us, focus now turns entirely to the stretch run and the many playoff races that are unfolding.

Most teams have 20 or so games left, which may seem like a lot of time to work things out, but it’ll be early April before you know it. Every game is huge now and with 10 on the slate Thursday night, we’re going to be treated to a few with playoff implications.

Here is our first look at the playoff push in 2020:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

If the season ended today…
(A1) Boston vs. (WC2) Columbus
(A2) Tampa Bay vs. (A3) Toronto

(M1) Washington vs. (WC1) NY Islanders
(M2) Pittsburgh vs. (M3) Philadelphia

Game to watch tonight: Toronto Maple Leafs at Florida Panthers
The Maple Leafs are Jekyll and Hyde-ing their way into a tough playoff race with the Florida Panthers. While the Leafs can look fantastic at times, as they did in Tuesday’s 4-3 win over Tampa Bay, or last week’s 4-0 win over Pittsburgh, they look horrific in others, such as last Tuesday’s dreadful 5-2 loss to the Penguins or last weekend’s EBUG fiasco.

Thursday night, Toronto visits the Florida Panthers, who are their most direct competition for a playoff spot. The Panthers got a big win of their own on Tuesday against the Arizona Coyotes and trail Toronto by two points while also holding a game in hand.

So which Leafs team will show up?

That’s the question everyone, including GM Kyle Dubas, is wondering. After not doing much at the deadline, Dubas was clearly frustrated at his most recent press conference and yesterday’s news that Jake Muzzin could be out a month won’t do anything to inspire confidence. Calle Rosen, one of Dubas’s minor deadline deals, is back with the team and now the Leafs are running with a collection of seven blueliners that lack NHL experience. Six of the seven defencemen on the roster right now have less NHL games combined than Tyson Barrie has played in his career.

The good news, if there is any? The youngsters are familiar with each other — five of the seven defencemen on the roster won the 2018 Calder Cup together with the AHL’s Marlies.

There’s no getting around that this will be a huge challenge for the Leafs at a key time, but as much as the focus will be on the defence, goaltending can’t be called a strength recently. While Frederik Andersen has been incredibly consistent in his time with the Leafs, this year has brought more uncertainty in his game than usual. Andrew Berkshire dug into the numbers to find out if defence or netminding was the bigger concern for the Leafs these days, and the conclusion may surprise you.

In the meantime, Florida was widely labelled a deadline day loser for their Vincent Trocheck trade and while Sergei Bobrovsky has posted two terrific starts in his past three, he still hasn’t come close to capturing his past levels of performance.

These teams are similar in a lot of ways. Leaky defence, goaltending not playing up to standard, and top five offences in the league. Thursday’s game is a massive one between the two, who will meet up once more on March 23.

What’d I miss?
With only three games Wednesday night there wasn’t any movement up the standings in the East. The Pittsburgh Penguins lost 2-1 to Los Angeles (and came within a whisker of changing the outcome of that game), while the Buffalo Sabres also dropped their game in Colorado 3-2. After being a soft buyer at the deadline and bringing in Wayne Simmonds, the Sabres are eight points back of the Leafs for third in the Atlantic.

For his part, Simmonds played his first game with the Sabres, logged 12:53 of ice and went pointless with one shot on goal.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

If the season ended today…
(C1) St. Louis vs. (WC2) Nashville
(C2) Colorado vs. (C3) Dallas

(P1) Vegas vs. (WC1) Calgary
(P2) Vancouver vs. (P3) Edmonton

Game to watch tonight: Calgary Flames at Nashville Predators
Don’t look now…

In a playoff spot for the first time since November, if Nashville’s recent stretch is an indication of what’s ahead, they’re going to throw quite the wrench into this race. Winnipeg, Arizona and even Minnesota at times all looked to have better playoff hopes than the Preds, but they all trail Nashville today. And Nashville plays at home to both Alberta teams tonight and Monday, with a date against Colorado in between. It’s unlikely the Preds will be able to get back into the Central’s top three (they trail Dallas by 10 points) but by next week we could be talking about them creating space in the wild-card race.

If that happens, it’d leave just one spot for a bunch of teams to fight over, Calgary being one of them. But the Flames have been dealing with consistency issues all season with their latest game, a 5-2 win over Boston, being one of their better and more impressive efforts.

Calgary arrived at last month’s all-star break with one of the worst offences in the league, but have been the league’s highest-scoring team since averaging four goals per game. And in that time Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm are all running at a point per game pace or better in that time. Sean Monahan has back-to-back two-point games — and it’s fair to say all of them need to be important producers if the Flames are to reach the playoffs. In such a tight race, they likely won’t get there if the offence regresses to where it was pre-all-star.

What’d I miss?
Edmonton finished up its California road trip with a 3-0 loss in Vegas which Mark Spector wrote showed some fatigue in the lineup. Edmonton also lost deadline pickup Andreas Athanasiou to injury, although Oilers coach Dave Tippett said he didn’t believe the injury was too serious.

The win for Vegas was its seventh in a row and brings them to 8-1-1 in their past 10 games. It seems like they are beginning to hit their stride and be the team that had many picking them for the division title pre-season. The Golden Knights are four points up on Vancouver and Edmonton right now, but have also played more games than both teams.

The other bit of important news that developed in the Pacific on Wednesday was an injury update on Jacob Markstrom in Vancouver. The team was idle on the schedule, but GM Jim Benning said Markstrom “underwent a minor lower-body procedure” and would be re-evaluated in two weeks. It’s an eerily similar statement to one the GM made about Brock Boeser two weeks ago, which was then followed up by the news Boeser’s injury was more serious than initially thought.

So the Canucks are moving ahead without their 2019-20 MVP. It’s Thatcher Demko’s crease until further notice and he’s coming off a fantastic 37-save win in Montreal on Tuesday. The Canucks play in Ottawa tonight before facing a stiffer test Saturday in Toronto.

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