Samsonov, Bobrovsky will define Leafs-Panthers series
Russian goaltenders Ilya Samsonov and Sergei Bobrovsky will battle it out when the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers face off in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
OMAR: It's a crazy time right now. The Boston Bruins blew a 3-1 series lead, the Skittles Twitter account is making fun of it, Colorado is out, and the Leafs aren't. The Leafs aren't in second round against the Florida Panthers, which I don't think a lot of us saw coming. I think a lot of us expected the second round to be another opportunity for the Leafs to slay another dragon.
But hey, Florida is here, and I know there are a lot of us who feel really confident, a little overconfident, but I don't think the series is going to be as easy as we thought it would be. I mean, ask Boston. They're out, right? And one of the things that stands out for me is that you have two teams that have great tops. They're top heavy, right?
You have, on the Leafs side, obviously, Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Tavares. But Florida, they have their weapons as well. They have Verhaeghe, and Barkov, and Tkacuk, and Bennett. So I think it might be an instance where the two top lines kind of cancel each other out a little bit, what you see a lot in the playoffs, which will put a lot of focus on the bottom six.
Pretty sure the only player on the Leafs who scored 5-on-5 in the bottom 6 was Zach Gastonn Reese, and I'm not even convinced he plays. At least he plays every single game. I mean, Alex Kerfoot kind of in the bottom six, but his one goal was on was on the power play in overtime. But besides that, not much.
And Florida's third line is pretty sick. Listernunan is pretty sick. Sam Reinhart has a wicked shot. So it might be an instance where Ryan O'Reilly, Noel Charlie, and Michael Bunting can be really, really big be really important for the Leafs going forward, especially, again, if it comes down to those games where the top two lines cancel each other out, so you have to rely on the bottom six to get offense for you.
Speaking of difference-makers, Ilya Samsonov was the difference-maker in round one. He's going to have to be a difference-maker in round two. Why? Because Sergei Bobrovsky. That's why. I mean, he did it again. Sergei Bobrovsky eliminated Tampa after they won the Presidents Trophy, sweep out in 2019, and now Bobrovsky this year didn't start the playoffs, but he finished it, and he finished it well, and he literally gave-- he gave Florida the best chance to win, and they did.
So if it ends up as being an instance where Bobrovsky is making all of these saves left and right-- and I can see it happening, we've all seen it before-- Samsonov has to match that, and he did. He matched it in game 6. He matched it. He was really great in other games in the series. He has to be just as good, if not better, especially, again, if Bobrovsky is on his game.
Now, one of Florida's probably biggest weakness is their affinity for the penalty box. That was a huge thing in the regular season. They took a lot of penalties. And yes, we're in the playoffs where penalties aren't called as much, but this year has been different as far as officiating goes.
And in those first couple of games, you could expect Florida to take a lot of penalties. Who knows. Maybe Michael Bunting kind of changed his face a little bit, and instead of him being the one that takes the penalties, he gets other people to take the penalties. That'd be great. And if that's the case, then the power really needs to finish on those chances.
And it was really frustrating watching the Leafs get their power opportunities against Tampa and not score on them. They have to score in them here. Going back to the previous point, if Bobrovsky is having one of those games where he's stopping every single thing at 5-on-5, and you get a couple of power play opportunities, you have to make them pay for it. You have to score on them. And especially, again, if 5-on-5 wasn't working for the top two lines, the power play has to be the area where you dominate and you score and you win those games.
We focus a lot about offense, now here's the defensive aspect of it. You have to be tight on the defense. They can't turn the puck over. A lot of-- one of the main reasons why Boston lost, aside from them playing an injured goalie-- don't do that-- is that they made too many mistakes, neutral zone turnovers, defensive zone turnovers, and Florida made them pay for it immediately.
Including game 7, they had two turnovers they went right into the back of the net immediately. So they at least have to limit that. We've had their moments of really bad play at 5-on-5, especially earlier on in the series. But overall this year, we've proven that we can be a better team defensively, more secure, and more responsible with the puck.
The Brodie and McCabe pairing, the Riley-Schenn pairing have been solid. They can help and work try to control and contain the offensive threats on Floriday. But the forwards that we have-- and not even just the forwards, all the players that we have, we can't turn the puck over ourselves. We have to carry it. We have to work with possession because that's where we're at our best, but we can't turn the puck over. Because if we turn the puck over, Florida has those weapons that they can turn those mistakes into goals immediately, and not just up front, on the blue line as well.
Brandon Montour has been a monster for Florida in the playoffs. And if you give him an opportunity, wherever it is on the ice, whether it's in the slot, on the point, by the face-off dots, he will make you pay for it. So the Leafs have to be responsible with the puck. That can end up being the difference.
There are two teams that are very similar offensively, but I believe the Leafs are better defensive team, and they need to lean into that. If they're better defensively, they're better in front of Samsonov, they give him the opportunity to make those saves so Florida can capitalize on those chances themselves. So lock it down, be responsible, score your goals, but defend the house when you can.
Finally, and this is the most important thing, and I'm not just saying this to the team, I'm also saying this to the fans, the organization, Kyle Dubas, Jason Spezza, Brandon Pridham, Brendan Shanahan, whoever is listening, do not underestimate this Florida Panthers team. That's what Boston did. They did, honestly.
Everyone in their brackets-- brackets are destroyed around the world right now because everyone wrote Boston in four, Boston in five. I even saw Boston in three jokes, and Florida definitely heard it, and they made that their superpower. They leaned into that. They knew that no one believed in them. They knew that everyone thought they were going to lose.
And they went into those games, despite the fact that they were down 3-1, and they pushed, and they fought back, and they won the game. Do not underestimate this team. The Leafs cannot afford to do that. They got over the hump. They got over the mental hurdle of getting out of the first round, but if they go into this series thinking that it's easy, I mean, we've watched this team. We've seen what happens when they go into a game and they think it's going to be easy.
Remember the games against Montreal, or the games against Arizona, or the games against Columbus, those games against teams who are out of a playoff spot that the Leafs should win, and they don't? Yes. If that was the regular season and this is the playoffs, but that mentality of we have this in the bag, we're the favorites.
I don't know if you've seen, the Leafs are now the favorite to win the Stanley Cup, to win it. They're the favorite in this series. They're the favorite to win the Championship. So yeah, they don't have the pressure, but again, the spotlight is on them, and that's just going to piss Florida off and make them kick it to a higher gear than they're already at right now.
So they need to respect this team, and they need to ensure that they're not taking it easy, that they are literally approaching this game as if it was Boston. That's the mentality you have to have. Yes, it's a different logo, different player personnel, but go into this series thinking that it's Boston because if they don't, Florida will make them pay for it.
And I know before I said, you know what, just win one round and I'm fine, but you know what? I felt the glory of a win, and I see the path. Now, it's easier because Boston's out, but that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. And if the Leafs go into this series thinking it's going to be easy, then that's game over for them.
But if they walk into the series with that chip on their shoulder, with the best lineup possible, Sheldon, with the best lineup possible, and they play their style, and they're secure, and they're responsible in front of their own net, then they can win this. They can win this series. And I think they will. So I'm calling it now. I say the Leafs defeat Florida in six games and advance to the Eastern Conference Final.