*******If you are interested in sponsorship or advertising your business in the Greater Toronto / Southern Ontario area on this column, please send a message for more information by clicking on the “Contact” button at the top of the page.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have nine games remaining in the season and a five-point lead and two games in hand on the Tampa Bay Lightning, giving them a sizable advantage in pursuit of home-ice advantage for the first round. While the race is not over and the Leafs cannot take their foot off the pedal with just over two weeks left, it is also the time when all contending teams are being extra careful with players with nagging injuries.
Toronto returns home after going 3-2-0 on their five-game road trip to take on the Florida Panthers at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. The game marks a stretch of four of the next six games on home ice before finishing the schedule with three straight on the road. The Panthers are a team desperately trying to stay in the Eastern Conference wildcard race, trailing the NY Islanders by three points and Pittsburgh by two, and who did not play well against the Leafs in a 6-2 loss in Sunrise last week.
After going with 12 forwards and six defensemen in Nashville on Sunday, head coach Sheldon Keefe will return to the unconventional 11-7 alignment due to Noel Acciari being dinged up in the 3-2 victory over the Preds. The Leafs held Acciari out of practice and indicated that he would not play against the Panthers, but the veteran forward was on the ice during Wednesday’s optional skate, reflecting an overabundance of caution being exercised by the club.
Ryan O’Reilly skated while the Leafs were on the road and while there was some speculation that he could return ahead of schedule, Keefe indicated that he could practice later in the week, which would be on target with the club’s original four-week timeframe for the recovery time for his broken finger.
Eric Gustafsson has still not returned to the club after dealing with a personal family matter, which means that Timothy Liljegren will step back into the lineup after being scratched against the Preds following a poor outing in the loss to Carolina.
“(Timothy) has had a terrific season for us. He has taken tremendous steps towards being an everyday player and a reliable player. He has been a real key for us at different times this season when we have really had to lean on him. The challenge for Timothy now — and other defensemen on our team — is the situation has changed. We have additional depth. At times, we have played seven. There is a lot to manage there. It can be more challenging for a younger player that hasn’t been through such a situation.” Keefe said on Tuesday. “When the playoffs begin, that in and of itself is some adversity. Things change. The atmosphere and environment change. The pressures change. The ability to handle all of these things is really important for all of our D, but especially the younger ones who haven’t been through it as much. I want Lily to focus on the fact that he has been an excellent defenseman for us all season long.”
After missing the later part of the road trip due to the birth of his son, Ilya Samsonov will return between the pipes for Toronto, hoping to improve on his sparkling 18-2-2 home record. The Panthers will be going with Sergei Bobrovsky (24-20-3, 3.07 GAA, .901 save %)