Game Preview #63 - Leafs vs Panthers

 

Maybe I'm becoming a glutton for punishment, but tonight's game between the Toronto Maple Leafs  (29-26-7) and the Florida Panthers (29-20-12) is something that I have been looking forward to for the past two days. It's funny that a match-up between a couple of teams that are currently in the midst of the longest playoff droughts of all the NHL teams - Florida 11 years, Toronto 8 years -  excites me this much. Maybe I don't think it can get any worse than it did on Saturday night, or maybe it's just the beautiful playoff weather outside, but I can't wait for puck drop tonight.

While the Leafs have gone through an abysmal three weeks (1-7-1 in their past nine games), the Panthers have been treading water going 3-3-1 in their last seven games. Florida is currently sitting atop the South East Division and have built up a 5 point lead over the floundering Leafs. The Panthers are looking to be in great shape to finally end that ten year playoff drought as they sit two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets and three points ahead of the Washington Capitals. Florida also has four games in hand over the Jets and one in hand on the Capitals. Needless to say the Leafs need to win this one if they have any shot of ending their own drought.

With the trade deadline finally behind them, the Leafs can now focus on hockey. Toronto needs struggling players Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul, Nikolai Kulemin, Matthew Lombardi, Dion Phaneuf and John Michael Liles to return to the form that is expected of them if they are going to make a late playoff push. The Leafs' destiny is still in their own hands, but they need to begin banking points tonight. James Reimer is once again expected to start between the pipes, and veteran defenseman Mike Komisarek is expected to draw back into the lineup as Cody Franson will draw out to make room for the Leafs alternate captain.

Florida has easily handled the Leafs this season winning 5-1 at the Air Canada Centre in early November and 5-3 in Florida in late December. The Leafs have struggled against the trapping style of game that the Panthers strangle their opponents with. It is imperative that Toronto comes out of the gate strong as they have fallen behind by at least 2-0 scores in their past 4 contests. If Florida gets an early lead tonight then it might be another long night for the blue and white.

Another key to the game tonight is special teams as the Panthers have converted twice on five power play attempts versus the Leafs this season, while holding the Leafs to only one goal scored on six opportunities with the man advantage themselves. Rejuvenated Panthers keeper Jose Theodore has dominated the Leafs this year as he was a major reason the Panthers are 2-0 versus the buds this year. The former Hart trophy winner has made 38 and 29 saves respectively in the two wins.

Lineups

Leafs

Forwards

Lupul - Bozak - Kessel 
Kulemin - Grabovski - MacArthur 
Lombardi - Connolly - Frattin 
Crabb - Steckel - Brown

Defense

Gunnarsson - Phaneuf 
Gardiner - Schenn 
Liles - Komisarek

Goalies

Reimer 
Gustavsson

Panthers

Forwards

Fleishmann - Weiss - Versteeg 
Bergenheim - Kopecky - Samuelsson 
Wolski - Matthias - Santorelli 
Barch - Smithson - Skille

Defense

Garrison - Campbell 
Jovanovski -  Gudbranson 
Ellerby - Weaver 

Goalies

Theodore
Clemmensen

Players to Watch

Leafs: James Reimer - The Leafs are apparently resting their fate on the shoulders of Reimer. The Second year pro needs to rediscover his game and be the goalie that many people thought he could be heading into this season. Reimer was shelled in his only start versus Florida this season, and must bounce back from a tough season starting tonight. 

Panthers: Stephen Weiss - The Markham, Ontario native is once again having a strong season - 45 points in 59 games while being a +7 - as he centres the Panthers top line. Weiss is looking to participate in the playoffs for the first time and a win tonight will all but crush his hometown teams chances of making it. 

Game Time: 7:00 at the Air Canada Centre. TV - Sportsnet Ontario. Radio - AM640.