Beating Penguins would help Maple Leafs as they try to hold off Panthers

Maple Leafs Penguins preview, Panthers Atlantic third playoff spot
Getty Images
2 Comments

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Both the Penguins and the Maple Leafs have serious incentive to win Tuesday’s game.

When you zoom out to the big picture, it’s also clear that the Penguins are in a race with the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division title. This post breaks down many facets of that battle.

Things are a little more muddled when you try to summarize the big picture for the Maple Leafs.

Granted, the path becomes clear for them if they simple wrestle the Atlantic’s third spot from the Florida Panthers. That battle will be the main focus of this post, but we’ll also acknowledge recent shifts that make a wild-card spot more plausible.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Maple Leafs vs. Panthers for third in the Atlantic

Both teams experienced recent ups and downs that made it seem like someone would pull away, only for them to remain neck-and-neck:

Maple Leafs Panthers Atlantic three

As you can see, the Maple Leafs hold a two-point edge, but the Panthers have a game in hand. Toronto losing to Pittsburgh, particularly in regulation, would really sting.

Consider a few other things about the Panthers’ and Maple Leafs’ remaining schedules:

  • Maple Leafs are 15-8-7 at home and 16-13-1 away, leaving them with 11 road and 11 home games remaining.

  • The Panthers are 16-12-2 at home and 15-10-4 on the road. They’ll play 11 more games in Florida and 12 more on the road. Each team looks certain to start on the road in the playoffs, if they make it, so these balanced records are reasonably promising for them.

Maple Leafs’ opportunities, challenges

  • The Maple Leafs face the Penguins in a home-and-home series this week. Following that, it’s games against the Hurricanes, Lightning, and then that head-to-head skirmish vs. the Panthers on Feb. 27. Not an easy stretch. That Feb. 25 meeting to Tampa Bay begins a stretch of five of six games on the road. The Maple Leafs also face a four-game road trip from March 23-31 featuring games against the Lightning, Hurricanes, and Capitals.

  • The Buds’ best opportunity to load up comes during a stretch of six of seven at home from March 10-23. Could the Canadiens have a chance to spoil things during Toronto’s season-closer on April 4?

Tough stretches for Panthers, and some home-cooking

  • The Panthers began a five-game West road trip by beating the Sharks on Monday. They’ll face four of five (March 9-17) and eight of 11 (March 9-28) on the road during a rigorous stretch.

  • The Panthers enjoy a five-game homestand (Feb. 27 – March 7) after this current West trip. They close the season with three straight home games. If the Capitals don’t have much to play for on April 4, that could be a fruitful stay, as the Panthers also host the Rangers (March 30) and Senators (April 2).

Panthers won both meetings against Maple Leafs so far; two left

The Panthers clubbed the Maple Leafs in Florida, beating them 8-4 on Jan. 12. The Panthers also handled their Feb. 3 meeting in Toronto 5-3.

The two teams meet next in Florida on Feb. 27, then battle in Toronto on March 23. Neither of those games are involved in back-to-back sets, so fatigue shouldn’t be a huge factor.

Other wild-card considerations

For quite some time, the Maple Leafs – Panthers jousting for third in the Atlantic seemed make-or-break. Things have gotten wobbly enough for several Metro wild-card contenders that Florida/Toronto might also have a shot at one of two wild-card spots:

Maple Leafs Panthers other EC wild card teams

It’s easier to imagine it still coming down to Panthers or Maple Leafs for a playoff spot, but that assertion has become less certain.

The Islanders have lost three in a row and have been on a mild downward trajectory lately. The Blue Jackets have had to scratch and claw for everything, and could be fading with five straight losses and agonizing injuries. The Hurricanes aren’t quite as scary without Dougie Hamilton. The Flyers hold edges over the Leafs and Panthers, and seem steady … but who knows?

Ultimately, the Maple Leafs and Panthers don’t want to leave things to chance. One of them will have to, though, so games like Tuesday’s between Toronto and Pittsburgh loom large.

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

An hour-long special on Connor McDavid, titled Connor McDavid: Whatever It Takes will premiere following the game at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The feature provides an inside look at McDavid’s comeback from a knee injury in last season’s final game. Click here for a trailer.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called the momentous matchup in 1980, and Mike Tirico, will premiere on Wednesday night at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 40 years to the month, this 30-minute special will feature Tirico’s wide-ranging conversation with Michaels about the buildup to the game, his iconic call, as well as the legacy of the moment that became bigger than sports and still resonates today.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.