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So much for all the advantages the Maple Leafs brought in Game 1 against the Florida Panthers. Now it’s about getting even.
Extra rest, home ice, more power plays and the momentum from their first series win in 19 years all evaporated when the Cats disrupted their system and the Leafs couldn’t re-adjust in time during a 4-2 loss.
Wednesday was all about repair work, with almost the entire team reporting for an optional skater and coach Sheldon Keefe gathering with his staff in the video room.
As Game 1 progressed, he went back to the proven forward duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, creating a killer trio skill with rookie Matthew Knies. But they’re not the most rugged Leafs and a prime target for Florida’s forecheck.
Keefe hinted they will stay together Thursday, meaning William Nylander will have to find his way out of his scoring slump with John Tavares as his center or perhaps Ryan O’Reilly.
“We’ll see,” Keefe said. “You hope you can find some lines that will work with the match-ups and the flow of the game. I didn’t feel we were there yesterday. The second period was better and in the third we were pressing, but Florida did a good job not giving us a lot.
“I’m looking at (Matthews with Marner). We were trying to find the last rhythm series, too, and never quite did. Like we saw in the regular season, maybe we’re better off with less consistency, more flow and being less predictable (for opponents).”
That sounds like the option of 11 forwards and seven defenses is on the table again, as the Leafs used in Game 7 in Tampa. The changes would mostly be in response to handling right winger Matthew Tkachuk’s line with centres Sam Bennett and Nick Cousins. Tkachuk had three assists and is the playoffs leading scorer, but it’s the damage he and the trio do without the puck that’s just as costly.
“You have to get them on their half of the ice,” Keefe said. “They make it hard to get out of your end and it really fuels the rest of their team.”
An 0-for-4 Leaf power play, three of them early chances before the Panthers grabbed a 2-0 lead, also hurt.
“You’re chasing the game, we never led, so it was harder to manage their best players,” said Keefe of the special teams’ fallout. “The power play had a chance to do that. The process was quite good, we entered well, had good looks, just didn’t capitalize.”
Nylander going back on the first power play unit could be part of that after his goal slump reached six games on Tuesday.
“Remain confident,” advised Keefe. “He’s like a lot of scorers, as I’ve said many times, they’re streaky. Keep attacking the net, shoot with authority and they’ll go in.”
Part of Wednesday’s video exercise was finding ways to throw goalie Sergei Bobrovsky off of his game after doing the same to Andrei Vasilevskiy in round one.
Game 2 will also be a chance to correct the home ice imbalance. It was little comfort to Keefe that road warriors were part of a league-wide trend this spring. The visitors hold a 33-19 edge, with Toronto 1-3 at Scotiabank Arena, its denizens who couldn’t have done more to push their team in these four games with loud voices and towel-waving,
“It is (frustrating),” Keefe said. “Home should be a tough place to play. We should be better, have more life, more energy, all these kinds of things. We just haven’t. But it’s certainly a topic around here in terms of handling that better, no matter where we are playing,
“I thought we got off to a fine start (Tuesday), got out of our end well, earned the power plays, had a chance to take a hold of the game and didn’t.
“At home you should never fade, We have to fix that and no better time than tomorrow.”
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