Maple Leafs show toughness but find few answers in grudge match with Panthers

Though Tuesday's win did help even the ledger while providing some catharsis for Toronto, it would be hard to classify it as an impressive one for the Leafs.

TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs deserve some credit for the grit they showed in their shootout victory over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.

The team responded to the visitors' physicality, with Auston Matthews managing a season-high four hits and Max Domi dropping the mitts. Mitch Marner took a puck to the chin and came back to keep on fighting. The Maple Leafs also played most of the game with five defencemen thanks to Mark Giordano's first-period injury.

The Maple Leafs played a physical game against the Panthers on Tuesday. (Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)
The Maple Leafs played a physical game against the Panthers on Tuesday. (Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)

It was a display of toughness from a team that's often criticized for lacking it. Or, as William Nylander put it, the Maple Leafs "dug deep and found some more jam" in their game.

"I liked that we stayed with it and found a way to get the second point again," head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the effort. "This was a hard-fought game that required a lot from our guys."

All of that said, it would be hard to classify the game as an impressive one for Toronto, who entered it facing questions about how it could handle a Florida team that had won five of their previous six matchups between the teams, including last year's second-round playoff series.

Considering Toronto-Florida is a plausible first-round matchup in 2023-24, that's a significant concern for the Maple Leafs and they didn't do much to answer it, requiring a shootout — that included a disallowed winning goal from the Panthers — for the team to pull out a victory.

While a win helped even the ledger — and provide some catharsis — the way Toronto earned its victory was hardly inspiring. At 5v5, Florida out-attempted the Maple Leafs 64-36, outshot them 29-23, and out-chanced them 27-20.

Joseph Woll stood tall, providing 38 saves on 39 shots, but the skaters in front of him rarely outplayed the Panthers until the third period.

"Joe was awesome," Morgan Rielly said after the game. "He's been playing great for us. In a game like that where it's back-and-forth he kept us in it."

"That whole first period he was standing on his head," Nylander added. "It would have gone badly if he wasn't standing on his head. He made some huge saves."

The game's other protagonist was Noah Gregor, who scored the team's only goal during regulation then finished it off on the first shootout attempt of his NHL career.

"I haven't had a shootout attempt in a while," Gregor said. "I think I had a couple in the AHL but I just tried to make a good shot and I'm happy it went in."

Leaning heavily on Woll and Gregor was not the plan for Toronto, nor is it a sustainable strategy. The fact the Maple Leafs needed their heroics to scrape by is notable in part due to the schedule situation of the game — a situation that heavily favoured the Maple Leafs.

Florida arrived in Toronto on Tuesday on the second game of a back-to-back having played a chaotic, physical contest against the Ottawa Senators with the goaltender that stifled the Maple Leafs in the playoffs last season — Sergei Bobrovsky — on the bench in favour of backup Anthony Stolarz.

Florida was in a poor position to win, and still looked like the better squad. It would be tough for the Maple Leafs to claim their effort on Tuesday is evidence that they've figured out the Panthers, who have held Toronto to just 12 goals in their last seven meetups — none of them coming from Matthews or John Tavares.

A big question entering the contest was how Keefe's top-six line shakeup, pairing each of those centres with a new right-winger, would look, and that wasn't answered in a satisfying manner.

Marner missing over a third of the first period after taking a puck to the face disrupted that evaluation — as did power-play time accounting for 28.3% of the game.

By the time the final whistle blew, the new top line of Matthew Knies, Matthews and Nylander had played just 8:58 together. The Tyler Bertuzzi-Tavares-Marner group logged 10:58.

The Matthews group was outshot 6-2, and on the ice for the first goal. They had a particularly brutal first period with the star centre being present for 15 Florida shot attempts at 5v5 without a single one going the Maple Leafs' way.

For what it's worth, Nylander was optimistic about what he saw.

"I thought we were creating a lot of chances there and drew a couple of penalties," he said. "We spent a lot of time in the offensive zone."

The Tavares line wasn't impactful either as the Panthers outshot Toronto 6-4 in their minutes with an expected goal rate of 78.16%.

Keefe's new units didn't perform well and also didn't play together enough for the coach to make a fair assessment of them — a worst-case scenario for a trial run like that. The coach will learn more about his experiment on Thursday against the Seattle Kraken, but the adjustment isn't off to a rousing start.

Not only did the Maple Leafs have difficulty answering the questions facing them on Tuesday, they have a new one to add to the pile. According to Keefe, Giordano "looks like he's going to miss time," leaving the team with just three of the blueliners it began the season with.