‘You want to send a message’: Maple Leafs–Panthers could be an intense playoff teaser

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TORONTO — Buckle up.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will face off Monday against the Florida Panthers, the club that ousted them from the playoffs last spring and could very well be their first-round opponent when the postseason kicks off again less than three weeks from now.

“I’m expecting a fun one,” smiles Ryan Reaves, who loves him a little hate. “It’s gonna be physical. It’s gonna be direct. It’s gonna be high intensity. It’s gonna feel like a playoff game. It’s a potential playoff matchup, so it’s gonna be everything you expect.”

The 82-game marathon is littered with forgettable matchups and, particularly late, dates against opponents that have shrugged their shoulders and are simply playing out the string.

And while both Toronto and Florida are assured of a spot in the NHL’s Sweet 16 bracket, neither executed particularly well in March. A heightened head-to-head like Monday’s should snatch the attention of both clubs — and their fan bases.

“For sure. Now’s the time you start peeking at the matchups and who you’re potentially playing,” Reaves goes on.

“When you play a team that you might play in the playoffs twice in the last 10 games, you want to put your best foot forward. Not only that, but you want to send a message.”

That sentiment is echoed down the Scotiabank Arena hall, in the visitors’ room.

“These are the types of games you want to be playing this time of year,” stated Sam Reinhart, one of three 50-goal scorers this season.

As splendid as Reinhart and the Stanley Cup finalists’ campaign has been, the Cats have won just two of their past eight games.

There is an urgency to get their house in order and dial in their identity leading up to April 20 — and the Maple Leafs offer a fine rehearsal.

“We’ve got a good game plan on how we’re going to try to beat these guys,” Matthew Tkachuk assures.

That game plan begins with stingy defence and ripples through to one of the league’s most fearsome forechecks.

“They’re really structured defensively. They play really hard. They’re competitive. They make it hard on you in all three zones of the ice. They play a really direct game. Puts a lot of stress on your net,” explains Leafs defenceman Jake McCabe.

“So, you gotta be strong around your net, just good with the puck. Don’t give them any freebies in the neutral zone and try to get on the forecheck and spend some time in their end.”

Both rooms are downplaying the mental edge of winning a late regular-season test like this, preferring to focus on the tactical.

“I think it’s less about what happened in the spring. I mean, we’ve got a lot of different people here,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe says.

“It’s more so just, it’s a really good team. It’s a divisional team. A team that plays you hard, doesn’t give you an inch. So, the game is very competitive in nature because of the style of play. And it couldn’t be more polar opposite than the types of games and style of games that we played last week [against New Jersey, Washington and Buffalo]. So, it’s a different feel. We’ve got to be ready for it.”

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Should we also be ready for some physical tone-setting? An attempt to deliver bruises that might still be purple when Round 1 kicks off?

“None. Like, zero effect. Truly,” Florida coach Paul Maurice says. “We got a certain style of hockey that we play. They have one. We’re both gonna play it tonight. And then if we see each other in two weeks, nobody’s going to remember this game. Except for you [media] guys. We’re gonna play hard. They’re gonna play hard.

“What’s important for us is that we feel that, maybe in our last five games, we’re coming back to our game.”

The veteran Maurice is not a believer that head-to-head regular-season results have any impact on a playoff series outcome. He’s beaten up on teams in the winter that later ousted his group in a best-of-seven come spring, and vice versa.

But when he considers the level of engagement of his players in their last playoff rematch — Tuesday’s intense 4-3 loss to Boston — he has a modest prediction.

“I do think this: I’m gonna bet that both teams are excited about this game tonight,” Maurice says.

“Just got out there and get to know each other again.”

One-Timers: Morgan Rielly (upper body, day-to-day) hit the ice Monday for the first time since suffering his injury last weekend but will miss a fourth consecutive game. “He’s close to 100 per cent,” Keefe says. … Mitchell Marner (ankle) will miss his 11th straight game. … Ilya Samsonov will start in Toronto’s net against Sergei Bobrovsky, who has posted a dialed-in .925 save percentage over his past 19 games. … The Maple Leafs’ penalty has been a perfect 11-for-11, shutting out the opposition over the past three games. Their power play, however, is 0-for-11 and scoreless in the past four.

Maple Leafs projected lines vs. Florida Panthers Monday:

Bertuzzi – Matthews – Domi
McMann – Tavares – Nylander
Knies – Holmberg – Robertson
Dewar – Kämpf – Reaves

Brodie – Lyubushkin
McCabe – Benoit
Giordano – Timmins

Samsonov starts
Woll



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