By Stan Smith

The Toronto Maple Leafs get to live another day as they defeated the Panthers 2-1 in game four in Florida and avoid a four-game sweep.

The Good

They won!  

That is by far the best thing about this game. It gives us fans a glimmer of hope, even if it is just a faint one. It is like hanging from a cliff and having someone throw you a second thread to go with the one you are already hanging on to. 

I would not call it a momentum swing by any means. The Maple Leafs played like a desperate team and the Panthers played like a team that knows it just has to win one of their next four games to clinch the series. 

If the Maple Leafs can repeat the feat on Friday night back in Toronto then maybe we can start talking about momentum.

Good Luck On The First Goal

Michael Bunting played a big part in the opening goal of the game. First, he banged his head against Eetu Luostarinen’s stick (more on that later) to draw a penalty. Then he expertly backhanded the puck off of the referee’s knee right to William Nylander who was left alone in front of Sergei Bobrovsky. Not to be outdone by Bunting’s skillful play, Nylander intentionally bounced the puck off of Bobrovsky’s arm, then the post, then Bobrovsky’s back, into the net.  

Of course, I am sure the Panthers and their fans will think that was a lucky goal.

Related: With Joseph Woll in Goal, Maple Leafs’ Future Is Now

Mitch Marner

Mitch Marner scored his first goal in eight playoff games to put the Maple Leafs up 2-0 just past the halfway point of the third period. The Maple Leafs had almost half a minute of sustained pressure in the Panthers’ zone leading up to the goal. 

Timothy Liljegren played a key role in keeping the puck in the zone as he left his post at the right point and skated to the center of the ice to prevent Florida from clearing the puck out of the zone. He dished it off to Marner on the corner, who attempted to pass the puck out front to Ryan O’Reilly. Aaron Ekblad got his stick on the attempted pass by Marner and directed the puck out to Jake McCabe at the point. McCabe gave the puck back to a circling Marner. Marner wristed a shot through a screen provided by O’Reilly, under Bobrovsky’s arm into the net. 

That goal would turn out to be the winning goal as the Panthers would later score a power-play goal. It was also Marner’s second point of the game and his 14th point of the playoffs. Marner also led all Maple Leafs’ skaters in ice time with 21:23, one more second than…….

Justin Holl

The much-maligned Justin Holl led all Maple Leafs’ defensemen with 21:22 of ice time. He also might have played his best game of the postseason. While he did not figure into the scoring, he won important battles along the boards in his zone as well as in front of his net. He also moved the puck out of dangerous situations several times. 

Holl played a smart game, timed his pinches well, and didn’t get caught up ice as he has been prone to do in the past. He also did not commit any egregious turnovers.    

Related: Will It Be Time for the Maple Leafs to “Blow It Up Real Good?”

Joseph Woll

Joseph Woll became the first Maple Leafs’ rookie goalie to start a game in the playoffs in 30 years. The last was Felix Potvin in 1993. Woll fared much better than Potvin did in his first playoff start as Potvin gave up six goals in his debut. 

Woll also became the first Maple Leafs’ rookie goalie to win his first playoff start in 33 years. Jeff Reese won the first game he played as a Maple Leafs’ rookie in 1990. 

Woll stopped 24 of the 25 shots he faced in this game giving him a 0.960 Save Percentage. In 122 minutes of action in the 2023 playoffs, Woll has a Goals-Against-Average of 2.45 and a Save Percentage of 0.902. 

While it is a small sample, using the eye test to compare Woll’s play with Samsonov’s in these playoffs, I have to say that Woll looks like the better of the two goalies. He looks calmer, better positionally, and superior at both tracking the puck and preventing rebounds. 

I have to think that even if Samsonov does recover from whatever ails him, the fate of the Maple Leafs in these playoffs will rest in Woll’s hands. 

Solid Defensive Effort

With all the firepower the Maple Leafs possess, I never thought I would be saying this. The Maple Leafs won this game by playing a solid “defensive-first” game. They severely limited the scoring chances of the Panthers and put Woll in a strong position to succeed. 

Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs

I think back to one thing Mike Babcock stated several times. He talked about players still being effective even when they weren’t playing their “A” game. Auston Matthews, Marner, and Nylander showed that in this game. In a contest where the checking was tight and there was very little room on the ice to “wheel and deal,” those three players have been strong defensively. 

The team’s core has been working just as hard without the puck as they have been with it. There were numerous plays in this game where one of the “MNM” trio prevented scoring chances by backchecking or blocking shots. 

Breaks and Mistakes

Although this was the only win the Maple Leafs have had in this series, statistically, it wasn’t their best game of the series. That was Game 2. The difference between Games 2 and Game 4 was that, despite outplaying the Panthers for the majority of the game, huge mistakes in the first minute of the second period led to two Florida goals. After that, the Maple Leafs failed to get the bounces in tight or were unable to get their sticks on rebounds and possible deflections.  

In this game, the bad errors that had plagued them in the first three games were few and far between. It also seemed in the first three games that all the positive breaks went Florida’s way. Any breaks the Maple Leafs had were bad ones. In this game, a huge positive break led to the Maple Leafs’ first goal.

The Bad

Giordano Turnover

While I stated in the “Good” the errors were few and far between, one mistake by Mark Giordano led to a Florida penalty and the only goal against Toronto. Giordano fanned on a cross-ice pass in the neutral zone with nine minutes left in the game and turned the puck over to Sam Bennett. That led to an odd-man rush for the Panthers and some pressure in the Maple Leafs’ zone Giordano then lost his stick in a battle in the corner allowing Nick Cousins to walk out of the corner and feed a pass to Marc Staal. 

Alex Kerfoot went down in an attempt to block a fake shot by Staal and slid under him, taking a tripping penalty on the play. On that power play Sam Reinhart got his stick on a puck that was in the crease just out of the reach of Woll. He pushed it over the goal line.  

Bunting’s Face

The other “Bad” of note was the high-sticking call on Luostarinen in the second period that led to the first Maple Leafs’ goal. From the available information, a double minor can be called if a player appears to be injured in the play. It is generally regarded as a four-minute penalty if blood is drawn. 

However, different interpretations of that rule don’t state that expressly. Blood being drawn does not automatically mean a double minor, and a double minor can be called even if there is no blood. Historically, however, if there is blood, it is called four minutes. No blood, two minutes.

During the play, it was clear that Bunting was hit extremely hard in the face by Luostarinen’s stick and it did draw blood. If any other player on the Maple Leafs had been hit that viciously in the face by a high stick, be it accidental or not, I’m sure it would have led to a double minor. But, it was Bunting. 

When they showed Bunting on the bench shortly after, it appeared the hit was hard enough that Bunting’s eyes were already starting to turn black. Luckily for the Maple Leafs, they were able to capitalize on the two-minute penalty that was called. 

The Ugly

There was an ugly incident in the second period of the game.  

The Maple Leafs were being called for a holding-the-stick penalty on TJ Brodie.  As soon as a Maple Leafs’ player touched the puck the play was going to be called dead. After a scramble in front of the Maple Leafs’ net, Kampf knocked the puck into the corner. As he did so the referee blew the whistle. 

As the whistle was blown and clearly after Kampf had touched the puck, Gudas took five full strides from his position and slammed Kampf with a high hit into the boards. The hit was late, and by NHL rules, charging. Charging I could find a quotable definition for.  

“…..when a player takes more than two strides or travels an excessive distance to accelerate for the purpose of body checking another player.” 

With the penalty call imminent, and everyone knowing that Kampf was not going to be able to make any kind of play with the puck once he touched it, there can only be one reason that Gudas would target a player in that position. How there was not a penalty called on the play is beyond me. It could have just as easily been a major. 

I hope, but doubt, the NHL will look at that play. 

What’s Next?

After having a strange situation where there were two days between games two and three and games three and four, the series goes back to the traditional one-game-every-two-days, format. The second round returns to Toronto for game five on Friday night. 

After going 27-8-6 at home in the regular season, the Maple Leafs have won only one game in five tries at home in the playoffs. That compares to a 4-1 record they have on the road in the playoffs. Maybe, rather than having the players go home when they return to Toronto, Sheldon Keefe should arrange to have the team stay at a hotel. It has been done before. 

Time to Duplicate Game 4 Again in Game 5

Regardless of where they sleep, the Maple Leafs need to duplicate their performance of Game 4 in Game 5. Better yet, it would be nice to see their offence break out of the six-game funk that has seen them score just two goals in all six games. 

I like the 11/7 setup that Keefe used in Game 4. When Zach Aston-Reese dressed and was part of a fourth line with Kampf and Sam Lafferty, that line has been getting caved by Florida. Strangely enough, Lafferty and Kampf have been getting more ice time when Keefe has gone with the 11/7 setup than they have when he has gone with a full four lines.

Having the extra defenseman also allows Keefe to better tailor his defence to the situation, putting out defensive combinations for draws in their end, and more offensive combinations for faceoffs in the Florida end. 

As it was in Game 4, the task at hand for the Maple Leafs is simple. Just win one game. While I don’t think winning a game in Florida did much to swing momentum in the series (yet), winning the next game at home and sending the series back to the Sunshine State with the Maple Leafs down 3-2 could see a change in momentum. Then the pressure would start to swing towards the Panthers to not allow the series to go to a seventh game in Toronto. 

A Look At The Changing Odds

It was noted before Game 4 that a team has come back from being down 3-0 in an NHL playoffs series just four times in 203 tries in the history of the league.  

Teams have come back from being down 3-1 in a series 31 times in 325 tries. With that one win, the odds of the Maple Leafs winning the series have jumped by eight times.  

That still only means the Maple Leafs’ chance of making it out of this round is about 10%. But, it’s much better than the 1.5% odds of coming back from being down 3-0. I can’t find odds for a team coming back from being down 3-2, but I am going to guess it would be somewhere around three to one, or 33%.  

Based on those odds, winning one more game would change the odds against the Maple Leafs winning this round dropping to 3-1 from the 60 -1 it was against before they won game four. Of course, all of that is irrelevant when it comes to Friday night’s game. For now, it is about winning one game. 

Related: Three Takeaways from Maple Leafs’ 2-1 Game 4 Win vs Panthers

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