Panthers have a lot to prove, starting with big test vs. Maple Leafs
What would be more embarrassing: the Maple Leafs or Panthers missing the playoffs? Because most signs point to the Maple Leafs and Panthers battling for one playoff spot as the Atlantic’s third seed.
There’s no question that the Maple Leafs missing the mark would draw more attention. Yet, as of Thursday, Feb. 27, I’d argue that Toronto would have more excuses than Florida. Not that such a notion would save anyone’s job, mind you, but it feels worth a mention.
Because, really, in a harsher market, there’d be more desperation in the air than the humidity in Sunrise as the Panthers host the Maple Leafs on Thursday.
[Maple Leafs perspective: can their banged-up defense survive?]
Panthers are a lot like Maple Leafs, but with fewer excuses
When you look at all the factors involved, these two teams are remarkably similar in strengths (scoring buckets of goals) and weaknesses (seeking shelter from a blizzard of goals). The biggest difference is that the Panthers’ most important players have generally stayed healthy, while the Maple Leafs feel like the NHL’s answer to Wile E. Coyote.*
- Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Keith Yandle, and several supporting cast members played in all 63 of the Panthers’ games this season.
- Aleksander Barkov missed minimal time (60 GP) and Aaron Ekblad (61 GP) rarely sat out games, too.
- As astoundingly disappointing as Sergei Bobrovsky has been, he’s appeared in 48 games.
The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have experienced injuries to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and the current list features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Andreas Johnsson.
The point isn’t about the Maple Leafs’ challenges, as they have company among the most bruised teams in the NHL. Instead, it highlights Florida’s lack of excuses. They spent big on Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville yet ... from a big picture perspective, their situation doesn’t feel all that different from last season. Prominent Panthers will need to look hard in the mirror if they fall short (particularly GM Dale Tallon, who made another baffling move in shipping out Vincent Trocheck).
* - OK, the Blue Jackets are probably Wile E. Coyote, but the Leafs take a beating, too. Maybe Tom of Tom & Jerry?
Florida has a slightly friendlier schedule, so ... again, not many excuses
The Panthers should be deeply disappointed if they don’t hold an advantage over the Maple Leafs after the first week-or-so of March.
A look at the standings cements the notion that Thursday’s game is huge for both teams:
But the stage is set for Florida to gain ground. While the Maple Leafs play four of their next five games on the road, the Panthers begin a five-game homestand with this crucial contest.
Other contextual situations set the stage for the Panthers to go on a run, if this team has it in them.
The Panthers face the Senators two more times this season, and also have one game apiece against the Devils and Red Wings.
Will the Canadiens sag by March 7, and if not then, by March 26? The Rangers might also run out of magic by March 30, while the Capitals might opt to rest key players during a season-closing contest on April 4.
Of course, the two biggest games seem obvious. Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Florida could loom large, especially if it ends in regulation. The two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in Toronto on March 23.
Overall, the Panthers play 11 more games at home versus eight on the road, while the Maple Leafs see an even split (nine each).
No, that schedule doesn’t present a towering advantage for Florida, though it does seem like it’s more favorable. Instead, it makes it clearer that the Panthers have every opportunity to prove themselves, starting with Thursday’s big test against the Maple Leafs.