Andreas Johnsson

Panthers face test in Atlantic third seed race vs. Maple Leafs
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Panthers have a lot to prove, starting with big test vs. Maple Leafs

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What would be more embarrassing: the Maple Leafs or Panthers missing the playoffs? Because most signs point to the Maple Leafs and Panthers battling for one playoff spot as the Atlantic’s third seed.

There’s no question that the Maple Leafs missing the mark would draw more attention. Yet, as of Thursday, Feb. 27, I’d argue that Toronto would have more excuses than Florida. Not that such a notion would save anyone’s job, mind you, but it feels worth a mention.

Because, really, in a harsher market, there’d be more desperation in the air than the humidity in Sunrise as the Panthers host the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

[Maple Leafs perspective: can their banged-up defense survive?]

Panthers are a lot like Maple Leafs, but with fewer excuses

When you look at all the factors involved, these two teams are remarkably similar in strengths (scoring buckets of goals) and weaknesses (seeking shelter from a blizzard of goals). The biggest difference is that the Panthers’ most important players have generally stayed healthy, while the Maple Leafs feel like the NHL’s answer to Wile E. Coyote.*

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have experienced injuries to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and the current list features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Andreas Johnsson.

The point isn’t about the Maple Leafs’ challenges, as they have company among the most bruised teams in the NHL. Instead, it highlights Florida’s lack of excuses. They spent big on Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville yet … from a big picture perspective, their situation doesn’t feel all that different from last season. Prominent Panthers will need to look hard in the mirror if they fall short (particularly GM Dale Tallon, who made another baffling move in shipping out Vincent Trocheck).

* – OK, the Blue Jackets are probably Wile E. Coyote, but the Leafs take a beating, too. Maybe Tom of Tom & Jerry?

Florida has a slightly friendlier schedule, so … again, not many excuses

The Panthers should be deeply disappointed if they don’t hold an advantage over the Maple Leafs after the first week-or-so of March.

A look at the standings cements the notion that Thursday’s game is huge for both teams:

Panthers Maple Leafs Atlantic standings

But the stage is set for Florida to gain ground. While the Maple Leafs play four of their next five games on the road, the Panthers begin a five-game homestand with this crucial contest.

Other contextual situations set the stage for the Panthers to go on a run, if this team has it in them.

The Panthers face the Senators two more times this season, and also have one game apiece against the Devils and Red Wings.

Will the Canadiens sag by March 7, and if not then, by March 26? The Rangers might also run out of magic by March 30, while the Capitals might opt to rest key players during a season-closing contest on April 4.

Of course, the two biggest games seem obvious. Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Florida could loom large, especially if it ends in regulation. The two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in Toronto on March 23.

Overall, the Panthers play 11 more games at home versus eight on the road, while the Maple Leafs see an even split (nine each).

No, that schedule doesn’t present a towering advantage for Florida, though it does seem like it’s more favorable. Instead, it makes it clearer that the Panthers have every opportunity to prove themselves, starting with Thursday’s big test against the Maple Leafs.

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.

Assessing the proper level of panic for Maple Leafs

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PITTSBURGH — The Maple Leafs do not exist in a world of calm, rational thought. They exist in a world of extremes. A world where they are either an elite roster where a Stanley Cup is their inevitable destiny, or a world where everything about them is a five-alarm dumpster fire where they have to trade everyone and completely change everything about them.

They have experienced both extremes during this season.

It started with the hopelessness that ultimately ended the Mike Babcock era.

The first 20 games under new coach Sheldon Keefe brought more goals, more wins, and a rapid climb up the standings.

Now, after a completely inept 5-2 loss to the Penguins Tuesday night (against a Penguins team that was already playing without Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, and John Marino, and then found out it would not have Evgeni Malkin 25 minutes before puck drop) the inferno is not only back, it is raging.

And while the Maple Leafs are dealing with their own share of injury issues (Morgan Rielly, Andreas Johnsson) it shouldn’t have resulted in an effort like that.

That loss also came on the heels of an ugly 5-2 defeat to a hapless Sabres team, and continued a disappointing February that has seen the team win just four out of 10 games. Only one of those wins (a 4-2 win over the Senators) came in regulation. Things seemed to hit rock bottom mid-way through the second period on Tuesday when, after failing to score on an eighty-five second 5-on-3 power play, they were completely embarrassed in their own zone to fall behind 5-0. The entire sequence was the hockey equivalent of the Penguins emphatically dunking on the Maple Leafs. At that point they never seemed further away from where they should be.

Maple Leafs players were grilled on everything afterward, from the urgency they need to display, to what moves need to be made to fix this mess before Monday’s trade deadline, to just what in the hell has been going on for the past three weeks.

“When things don’t go our way, we have to find better ways to respond,” said captain John Tavares. “We just don’t respond well, getting down a goal, getting down two, even though the game wasn’t being dominated on either side. We did some decent things early, then I don’t know, we were either frustrated with the way we were playing, or feel like things aren’t going our way. That’s this time of year. Things are going to be tough. You have to overcome it.”

“It looks like the process that we want to go through is to just get embarrassed enough to the point where we just really look in the mirror and recognize what’s required for us to be able to compete at a high level at this stage of the season,” said an obviously irritated Keefe afterward, before later adding that it’s not just any one thing on any given night.

“If you had special teams on your Bingo card of things that are hurting our group then you’re happy today and got that filled. I think the common denominator is just the overall urgency and competitiveness of the group.”

Urgency and compete were words that were used often after the game, with Tavares being asked directly what “urgency” looks like to him.

“Just winning our battles, and some that you shouldn’t win,” said Tavares. “Finding a way to get outside your comfort zone. Finding another level that maybe you’re not sure you even have. It’s just part of what makes winning hard. I’ve only been so far, I’m trying to find it myself, and I think as a group that’s the way you challenge and push each other, and when thing get hard you have to embrace it.”

“Everyone’s got to take a look in the mirror and we have to be better because that’s unacceptable,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “We have to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All of that needs to come. I don’t know why it’s not there. Sometimes when we struggle we want the easy game, and it’s not going to be easy against good teams.”

Overall, it was about as dejected and bleak as things could seem for a team following a mid-February loss.

On one hand, it is somewhat understandable. This roster is not where anyone expected it to be in the standings at this point in the season. It has also been a tough stretch of results this month, with Tuesday’s loss being the second time in as many games this season that they have been completely dominated by Pittsburgh, a team that is supposed to be a measuring stick opponent. Where the Penguins have been — and currently are — is where the Maple Leafs are trying to reach. And when you get blown out by them twice (by a combined score of 12-3 in two games) that has to be a jolt to the system.

They also remain in a fight with the FPanthers to simply secure a playoff spot (which is far from a given at this point).

But even with these past 10 games the Maple Leafs are still 22-12-4 under Keefe.

That is a 105-point pace over 82 games and the sixth-best points percentage in the league during that stretch. Their awful start put them in a hole that was going to take a ton of digging to get out of with little margin for error the rest of the way. For the most part, they have pulled themselves out of it. But they still find themselves in a position — thanks entirely to that slow start — where every loss is going to be magnified, every flaw is going to be put under the microscope, and every game is going to be the most important game of the season.

There is not much room for the middle ground in sports analysis right now as everything tends to swing to the extremes. The Maple Leafs, because of the market they play in, the demand to end a generations long championship drought, and the talent they have on paper only adds to that for them. The reality, though, often times sits somewhere in the middle. The Maple Leafs have their flaws. They have their concerns. But they are still in a better spot than they were three months ago and probably not in as dire of a situation as it seems after an ugly loss.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Limping Maple Leafs lose Andreas Johnsson for two months

Maple Leafs lose Andreas Johnsson for eight weeks knee surgery
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Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe announced that Andreas Johnsson will need knee surgery. Johnsson is expected to miss at least two months, canceling him out for the Leafs’ playoff push. That recovery window would bleed into at least a part of the postseason, too.

Johnsson the latest to leave Leafs limping

It’s jarring news for a Maple Leafs team that’s in tough to defend its spot in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and has already dealt with significant injuries this season.

TSN’s Kristen Shilton ranked among those passing along the bad news, also noting that Morgan Rielly is targeting late March for a possible return. Between those two, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Frederik Andersen, and others, it’s already been a trying season for Toronto.

Johnsson hasn’t enjoyed the same bounces in 2019-20 as he did last season. After managing 20 goals and 43 points on a 15.4 shooting percentage, Johnsson settled down to eight goals and 21 points (43 GP) on a 10.3 shooting percentage. Bill Comeau’s nifty-looking SKATR charts provide a snapshot of some of the areas where things slipped.

Maple Leafs Johnsson 2018-19 vs. 2019-20

The Maple Leafs currently sit in playoff position. More and more, it looks like it might come down to either the Panthers or Maple Leafs grabbing the Atlantic third seed, while Metro teams seem most likely to nab both East wild-card spots.

Maple Leafs Johnsson Atlantic standings

(The Blue Jackets and Flyers both have 71 points in the same 58 games played as Toronto. Carolina poses a similar threat with 67 points in 56 GP.)

Potential (small) silver lining for Leafs without Johnsson

There’s only so much sugar-coating one can provide for this situation. That said, at least Toronto lost Johnsson now, instead of after the Feb. 24 trade deadline. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston explains that the Maple Leafs would get $3.4M in cap space to work with if Johnsson goes on LTIR, while Rielly likely wouldn’t provide the same breathing room because he may return before the season ends.

In other words, the Maple Leafs have more room to trade for talent — whether that means finding a replacement for Johnsson, or addressing other needs, such as defense.

So, if the Maple Leafs do hold off the Panthers (or carve out a wild-card spot), they could have [insert hypothetical replacement] and Johnsson for the playoffs. Of course, that’s assuming Johnsson heals up somewhere in that eight-week-window.

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.

More bad Maple Leafs injury news: Jake Muzzin out week-to-week

Muzzin week-to-week
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The Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to pile up wins … and also, unfortunately, injuries. Following bad news for Ilya Mikheyev, the team announced that defenseman Jake Muzzin is week-to-week with a broken foot.

Clearly, beating the Devils 5-4 in OT on Friday now qualifies as a costly win. Muzzin hurt himself blocking a shot, while that scary skate blade injury will cost Mikheyev months.

Muzzin suffered the injury during the first period, but kept playing and walking. Maybe that made things a bit worse?

Maple Leafs injuries accumulate

Again, the list of injuries is starting to climb, especially if you consider the season at large (with Mitch Marner and John Tavares missing substantial time).

Combine Muzzin and Mikheyev with the losses of wingers Trevor Moore (out indefinitely with a concussion) and Andreas Johnsson (leg, on IR) and things escalate. About the only “perk” is that all of those injuries alleviate short-term salary cap concerns.

Deflecting to that really feels like gallows humor, though.

Maple Leafs might need to keep outscoring their problems

OK, maybe there’s one other indirect perk: still-new head coach Sheldon Keefe gets even more incentive just to let this group loose. However you feel about Muzzin’s effectiveness since joining the Maple Leafs, he’s not really there for elite scoring ability. Theoretically, his replacements may bring more to the table and take more away. Personally, I’d be more than OK with additional games like that 8-6 thrillride against the Hurricanes, but others, are … well, grumpier. Some agree with my high-entertainment preference, though.

At minimum, the Maple Leafs appear refreshed and unleashed under Keefe compared to the dull latter Mike Babcock days.

Even grumbling critics have to agree that they’ve been better in the standings lately. Toronto’s now won six in a row, with a chance to make it seven against the Rangers on Saturday.

Are they messy sometimes? Sure, but personally, I’ll take a messy-fun hockey game over a “perfectly” played snore-fest.

And, frankly, it’s clearly the style of game that behooves Toronto’s bounty of talent. With Muzzin out week-to-week, it might not just be the best choice, but also the only choice.

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.

Maple Leafs hoping ‘sour’ taste from rough loss leads to wake-up call

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PHILADELPHIA — During a pregame media availability on Tuesday, Maple Leafs forward Andreas Johnsson described the adjustment period so far under new head coach Sheldon Keefe as “a little up and down.”

“We have good periods and then we have bad periods,” Johnsson said. “Whenever you play you’re going to have bad periods because the other team is good, too. [We want to make them shorter] when it doesn’t go your way.”

The Maple Leafs had a good opening period against the Flyers Tuesday night, peppering Carter Hart with 15 shots. But they couldn’t crack the netminder, and while they managed to even the score at one midway through the third period, thanks to a fortuitous bounce, the rest of that final period? Mark that down as one of those “bad periods” Johnsson was talking about.

Eighty-eight seconds after Travis Dermott’s tying goal, Claude Giroux scored to help the Flyers regain the lead. 

That’s when the wheels fell off.

As the Maple Leafs pushed for an equalizer, poor puck containment in the offensive zone led to a two-on-one break the other way with Travis Konecny leading the charge. As Konecny’s shot was making its way through Frederik Andersen’s five hole, the goaltender knew he was beat and threw his head back in frustration.

After Joel Farabee put in an empty-netter to make it 4-1, Andersen went back in net for the final two minutes and promptly surrendered two goals in 12 seconds as the Flyers were 6-1 victors.

“We still had a couple minutes left, but we let in that empty net goal and I mean, we can’t just fold like that,” said Auston Matthews. “It’s unacceptable to do that to our starting goalie, a guy that’s stolen games for us. He’s been a brick wall for us all year. That’s just unacceptable on our part. We can’t just fold, that’s unacceptable. We just let him out to dry, breakaway, two-on-ones, odd man rushes all in the last minute and suddenly the score is 6-1, so that’s on us. That just can��t happen.”

The Maple Leafs netminder wasn’t happy with his teammates’ performance in the final five minutes. As soon as the buzzer sounded, he made a bee-line for the tunnel.

“I don’t really worry about me. I worry more about the way we played for the logo on the jersey,” Andersen said afterward. “I think we’ve got to get more pride than that. Hopefully we can respond and show what kind of character we have.”

(Andersen also sounded off on the lackluster effort of his teammates two years following a loss to the Flyers. )

Keefe had some things to say to his players afterward as he went into the dressing room and spoke to the team following the game, something he hasn’t done since taking over for Mike Babcock two weeks ago.

“Normally I would not go in after a loss or a game like this but I felt like it was important to address that situation,” Keefe said. “We want to be a team of high character and that cares for one another and I thought we just left our goaltender completely out to dry there and stopped playing, so that’s not a good sign for our group, but hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need. 

“I think as I look back on the game as that third period is unfolding, I think we saw two different teams. One that has kind of figured out how to win and know what their recipe is and another on our side that’s trying to find its way. I think that’s the difference in the game.”

The Maple Leafs are still learning Keefe’s system and Keefe is still learning his players’ tendencies and the strengths and weaknesses of their games. There’s plenty to clean up defensively, and that’s the goal in the coming weeks. They’re now 4-2-0 since the coaching change and now isn’t the time to lose the early momentum gained from firing Babcock.

“I think over time I’m starting to learn that a little bit of where we’re at and we’ll continue to make strides, but we don’t have a whole lot of time here,” Keefe said. “We’re going to get right back at it with a very good team [Colorado] waiting for us in Toronto. 

“We’ve got to regroup here really quickly and hopefully the way this game finished will leave a sour enough taste in our mouth that we’ll be coming out [Wednesday] and show we’re a different group.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.