Why it’s time for the Maple Leafs to play the villain in series with Panthers

William Nylander. (CP)

The Leafs were too willing to play the Florida Panthers‘ preferred style in the opening game of their Eastern Conference semifinal, and unless that changes in future games, they can expect the same results.

Toronto would have had a very clear picture of what to expect from the Tampa Bay Lightning, knowing how they’d have to grind, be patient, stand up for themselves, and hang in there. It was always going to be a physical challenge. While the Panthers have a few aggressive players, their identity isn’t as rooted in personal combat, which plays into one of the Leafs’ mental weak spots: when it can be easier, when they can safely keep to the outside and trade chances off breakdowns, this core has been all too content to do so (historically).

If last night were a regular-season game, the team may shrug and say: “We were as good as Florida. On another night maybe we get the bounces and win.” But this isn’t the regular season, and that ain’t going to cut it in the playoffs, where you need to grab hold of things before a series slips through your grasp.

The Panthers finished the regular season ahead of the Leafs in most offensive categories, but struggled mightily at keeping pucks out of their net (21st in the NHL), and some of that showed up in the numbers in Game 1. In the first round, the Leafs and Lightning played three overtime games and still the number of odd-man rushes per game settled in at just 4.6 per game. Last night, with a regulation finish, there were seven, highlighting a notable uptick in the amount of open ice out there.

So what needs to happen is the Leafs need to absorb the superpowers that saw the Lightning go from a fun offensive force to a smothering unit and become that bad guy. Not in terms of punchy-ness or post-whistle shenanigans, but they need to slow things down, take ice away, and make it hard for Florida to do their preferred thing. I believe it was Harvey Dent (of Batman fame) who once said: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and oh buddy, it’s Villain Season for the Leafs.

Some more granular thoughts:

The Leafs can’t let their focus drift to offence

Just because there’s room against Florida, and it feels like chances are available, Toronto must remain patient.

In the first round, the Leafs scored just once within five seconds of a Tampa turnover, which tied them for third among the 16 playoff teams. Not many goals are scored like that, obviously.

Florida scored a NHL-high SEVEN of those goals against the Bruins. And while the Carter Verhaghe Game 1 game-winner didn’t exactly meet that criteria, you can see how their quick-strike offence can burn you if you take chances to create offence, as Toronto defenceman Jake McCabe did in the final minutes of the second period.

The year the Montreal Canadiens went to the Cup Final they weren’t a very good team, but they thrived off goalie Carey Price making saves, then cashing in when their opponent forgot they also have to defend. Rope-a-dope and quick-strike is one way underdogs can burn you.

You MUST make their defence and goalie handle net drives

This is kind of a two-part thought: teams that are not as good as the Leafs yet have beaten them in playoffs (I’m thinking Columbus and Montreal) had one thing in common: They packed it in net-front and gave the Leafs the outside to play around. The Leafs were too content to hang on to it and hope for something to open up, racking up harmless shots and zone time. They absolutely must cut to the net-front every chance they can and make Florida’s middling D-corps defend, at worst forcing traffic onto goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, as chaos in the crease is never a bad thing from an offensive perspective.

I say two parts because I’ll give evidence of this below when we talk about this guy:

William Nylander has more to give

The Leafs have always taken the “great” with the “OK” when it comes to William Nylander, and I don’t say “good with the bad” for a reason, as he’s an elite talent in the NHL and is rarely outright bad. But in Round 1, Nylander was pretty-kinda-sorta-bad defensively. On these goals below, he should be protecting the net-front with help defence, not puck watching, etc. He was on the hook for a few against:

[brightcove videoID=6326690956112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

So … not great, but you can live with it if he’s giving you the good stuff at the other end. In Game 1 against Florida, Willy was the prime culprit of a guy being content to keep to the outside.

There’s the one play that’s making the rounds here, where I’ve seen it said “maybe he didn’t know the D fell,” but that’s part of the problem. He didn’t have the mindset that he was challenging to the net, he was just kinda making plays around the outside.

If you’ve got your mind set on getting to the net, you don’t skate this puck back towards your own end:

This one below isn’t as bad, but it’s another example of accepting the outside. To me, when Nylander is at his best this goes under the defender’s triangle here and he tries to go across the crease:

He has elite edgework, he can get this to a place where he at least gets bumped into the goalie:

This is what it looks like when Nylander is skating and thinking about taking it across the net front:

[brightcove videoID=6326690594112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

It’s better. Lastly on Nylander and how he can be content with things being easy: Watch him at the very bottom of this play at the blue line almost get out of the way of the Florida player rushing to put pressure on his D-man, who he could easily catch a piece of if he’s engaged.

I don’t even think the GIF does it justice. It’s just a weird lack of participation there.

And watch the net-front defence from Nylander here — no knee bend, very little engagement.

[brightcove videoID=6326693551112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Nylander skated well at times and was a part of some chances. But if he isn’t going to defend, he had better produce. And he’ll do that by making harder offensive plays.

Florida’s forecheck was not a problem, but jamming it up the walls isn’t option 1A

Of all the categories I’ve looked at from Game 1, one of Florida’s struggles was forechecking, where they rarely recovered a dumped puck. Toronto had 82 controlled exits in the game, leaving their own zone successfully on 83% of their attempts. (Florida had a similar success rate, but only 46 exits, simply because they only tried to break it out when they had options, instead choosing to punt it with dump outs on 21 separate occasions. Florida loves the flip out.)

Kevin Bieksa did a great job on the HNIC panel breaking down Florida’s “pre-pinch” by their D, which is to say they come down over-top the Toronto wingers before they ever get a breakout pass, essentially jamming up the Leafs D and forcing them to find other options. The Leafs D adjusted well, but when they’re pressured, the panic-play of rimming it to their wingers is a non-option in this series. That means getting back on pucks quick and having centre support will be key for them.

But also …

Stretch passes and neutral-zone room

This was a big story to me, and likely why the game may have looked “easier” for the Leafs. The Panthers are aggressive with their D up-ice, which means there’s less bodies back and more room for a track meet. The Leafs completed a whopping 17 stretch passes in this game (compared to Florida’s eight), and that’s even with Florida tightening that up in the third period. It looked like this at times:

To start the game:

And later in that same period:

This brings me to my last point for the day, which is …

The onus is on the Leafs forwards to make some plays

So they broke it out well, they had 10 more controlled entries than the Panthers, they completed stretch passes … and yet they only scored twice.

Maybe Tampa had the Leafs forwards feeling rushed on offence, so they got used to not making time to make plays. Maybe they spent too much time happy to have the puck on the rush altogether, which barely happened last round. But given the extra space out there, I saw way too many pucks just blow up on Leafs sticks, where a composed play could’ve generated a chance. Another longer neutral-zone pass and they’re in, and … and … oh.

All of the above is how I think the coaching staff would look at how Game 1 went. They didn’t get anything from Nylander, and Mitch Marner wasn’t a factor. Outside of Auston Matthews — and maybe fellow forwards Michael Bunting and Matthew Knies — they didn’t have many offensive players do much. And yet they ended up narrowly edging out the Panthers in expected goals for the game.

Sergei Bobrovsky was great, the Leafs’ power play was good but unlucky, lots went wrong that on another night might go right.

But this time of year, you can’t be leaving those things to chance, to hope. They’ve got to tighten it up, be patient in close games, and be the team that takes the puck to Florida’s end with some aggression, rather than be happy with possession. They’re the better team, but hockey’s a silly game, and so you’ve got to control what you can control. The dice bounced their way in Round 1, but now they’ve got to weight them in their favour to get the results they’re capable of earning.

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