Messy 7-6 game or not, Maple Leafs, Panthers shouldn’t change

Watching games like Tuesday’s wild Maple Leafs – Panthers slugfest sometimes feels like observing some wild, woolly endangered species. As much as you giggle at those uneven patches of fur and all the cute snacking, you worry that some dusty grump might come along and eradicate that precious thing.

We see it all the time with high-scoring teams. It cropped up as the Panthers beat the Maple Leafs 7-6 in OT.

When will these teams learn to play defense? How will this ever work in the playoffs?

No doubt, both the Maple Leafs and Panthers want to play tighter games. Still, it’s disappointing that those negative reactions register just as loud (if not louder), than the reaction that should reverberate.

Why can’t more teams play like the Panthers and Maple Leafs? Why can’t more games be this exciting and strange?

Sure, Maple Leafs and Panthers, tweak things. But don’t let those scared of change discourage you from mad experiments that might just work.

Breaking down Panthers – Maple Leafs, the game itself; Huberdeau passes 100 points

Honestly, coming into this game, it seemed like the stage was set for the Panthers to overwhelm the Maple Leafs. A night before, the Maple Leafs rode an incredible Auston Matthews performance to beat the Lightning. Facing a rested Panthers team was no easy ask for the Maple Leafs.

Perhaps that context explains what would happen later. Yet, early on, the Maple Leafs carried that electric play to a fast start vs. the Panthers.

After Sam Reinhart made it 1-0, a William Nylander power-play goal ended the first period tied 1-1.

Huge twists and turns leading up to Huberdeau overtime-winner

Considering how the second period started, any of the many Leafs fans in Florida must have felt real regret if they were stuck in a restroom or concession line.

Early on, Mitch Marner drove play with some absolutely electric offense. Marner reached the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career in style, niftily working the puck around the opposition and then beating Sergei Bobrovsky. Within 1:07 of the middle frame, Marner scored shorthanded and on the power play. He’d end up with a whopping four points (2G, 2A) in this one.

(Marner’s work against MacKenzie Weegar is … art.)

Less than a minute after Marner’s second goal, Colin Blackwell inflated Toronto lead to 4-1. At the 8:40 mark of the second period, Jake Muzzin made it 5-1.

Against a normal team, that would be enough. We’d probably just be talking about how Sergei Bobrovsky might be a problem again for Florida. (And he might be.)

Clearly, the Panthers are no normal team. They’re an incredible offensive machine, and a night like this should send the message that they should probably accept the bad with the overwhelming good.

Either way, that 5-1 lead clearly wouldn’t last. With a power-play goal, Sam Reinhart made it 5-2 about three minutes after Muzzin scored.

Truthfully, you could only blame goalies so much in a game like this, but Radko Gudas‘ shorthanded tally was one Erik Källgren would regret. Claude Giroux scored his first goal with the Panthers as Florida’s last tally of the second to shrink that margin to 5-4.

[Giroux hadn’t been scoring goals for the Panthers, but still passes his early review]

Delightfully, there were more twists and turns in the third period, and a bit beyond.

As part of a brilliant five-point night, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the 5-5 goal, then assisted on an Aleksander Barkov tally that stunningly gave Florida a 6-5 lead.

With less than four minutes left, John Tavares erased that edge with a PPG, sending Maple Leafs – Panthers to overtime with a score of 6-6.

Finally, after some OT thrills, Jonathan Huberdeau pushed his nightly point total to five points with the clincher. The first Panthers player to ever cross 100 points rests at 102.

Yes, Maple Leafs and Panthers can make this work … just maybe not this season?

When it comes to the Atlantic Division playoff bracket — and, to an extent, the Eastern Conference’s top eight — there’s an elephant in the room. At least if you don’t want to overreact to your team’s highs and lows.

Your team might do everything right, and still lose in the first round.

This feels like another important time to lay that argument out. While the Panthers could draw an “easier” first-round opponent from the wild-card level, few would call the Capitals a cakewalk. Truly, it’s telling that the Lightning are currently ranked as the East’s first wild-card team right now. Someone really good is going to lose in the first round. That shouldn’t cause teams to overreact and ruin a good thing.

Are the Panthers perfect? Really, every team faces at least some doubt. Overall, they should be proud that they can combine historically prolific offense with respectable play in other areas. Evolving Hockey’s Team RAPM charts are one way to capture the bigger picture in a single image:

Their offense was literally off the charts before an adjustment. (Via Evolving Hockey)

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs experience less dramatic highs and lows, and may end up more balanced:

You’re not going to get a much better balance than this very often. (Via Evolving Hockey)

Both teams are extremely good, yet they won’t need to wait long to face a different, extremely good opponent. The Maple Leafs are nearly certain to face the Bruins or Lightning off the bat.

Local media won’t give the Maple Leafs a break. If management’s allowed to stick around if things don’t work out, they shouldn’t panic.

Comeback Cats

Because, really, some of this is by design.

It’s easy to gasp at the Panthers’ lapses and ignore the thought that they’re relentless at giving opponents zero room to breathe. The Maple Leafs can take some solace in this being the fifth Panthers win after trailing by at least three goals. The Panthers have already put together a ludicrous 23 comeback wins.

Instead of worrying about the Panthers’ ability to defend, maybe they should be exalted for never giving up? No lead is safe against the Panthers, and they (or the Maple Leafs) might be able to protect enough of their own leads to make all of this work.

Either way, it sure seems like a smarter strategy than just trying to be like everyone else.

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.

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