The race for positioning in the Atlantic Division is one of the most intriguing storylines in the NHL over the final weeks of the season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a big opportunity to make a run for the top spot with a plethora of games against division rivals to finish off the season. That includes the first of three games against current division leader Florida on Sunday in Toronto.
The division is home to four of the top nine teams in the NHL, with the Panthers currently leading the way with 92 points, seven clear of the Leafs and Boston Bruins at 85. Florida is eight clear of in-state rival Tampa Bay, which currently sits at 84 points after a three-game losing streak.
Getting that top spot is crucial this year as the second- and third-place teams in the division are guaranteed to see each other in the first round in what will undoubtedly be a tough, grueling series.
Toronto is trying to become the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since 1993. Check out which teams have the best odds among Canadian teams to win the cup. The Montreal Canadiens were the last Canadian team to win the championship, defeating the Los Angeles Kings in five games in 1993.
Florida is currently the heavy favorite in Ontario sports betting to win the division at -650, with Toronto having the next best odds at +1100 as of Friday night. These odds will likely shift after Sunday night's game. It is a so-called “four-point game,” with the points you take away from your opponent almost as important as the points you gain for yourself with a win.
With its lead in the standings, Florida should be expected to enter Sunday’s game as slight favorites over Toronto — a rare spot to play the Leafs at home as an underdog or close to it. Both teams enter the game in back-to-back situations, but travel is minimal as Florida plays in Ottawa on Saturday and Toronto is in Montreal.
Goaltending Plagues Toronto
Toronto’s recent struggles have centered around its goaltending, as starter Jack Campbell was struggling before being sidelined with a rib injury. Backup Petr Mrazek wasn’t great in his absence with at least four goals allowed in four straight losses before finally getting a win over New Jersey on Wednesday.
Mrazek is already confirmed to be starting Sunday against Florida, with AHL callup Erik Kallgren starting Saturday in Montreal. Kallgren has come in and solidified the position a bit, with a 2-1 record in three starts including a big shutout win over Dallas in his first career start.
The Panthers are not a team you want to face while having goaltending issues, as they lead the league with a staggering 4.06 goals per game average. Jonathan Huberdeau and Alexander Barkov lead the way. They added to the forward group at the trade deadline, getting Claude Giroux from the Flyers, and he had a couple of points in his Florida debut against Montreal on Thursday.
Expecting to hold this offense at bay is unrealistic, although the Leafs looked much better defensively in their first game with trade deadline acquisition Mark Giordano in the lineup. Still, if Toronto hopes to win this game it will have to get a few goals of its own.
Leafs Can Score
This shouldn’t be too much of an issue for them as the Leafs are led by the league’s top goal scorer, Auston Matthews, and trail only Florida and Colorado in goals per game. Toronto also has the league’s top-ranked power play and should be able to take advantage of Florida’s middling penalty kill, which is now missing top defenseman Aaron Ekblad. He is out for the remainder of the regular season with injury.
With Ekblad gone, the dominant top line of Matthews, Mitch Marner and rookie Michael Bunting will have even more room than usual to operate. Being at home will also help this line, as Coach Sheldon Keefe will be able to use the last change to get them away from Barkov, one of the best two-way players in the NHL.
This has worked well so far this season as Matthews has 26 goals in just 28 home games. His line has so often been the difference-maker in games this year and has helped mask the goaltending issues. John Tavares and William Nylander haven’t been as good on the second line, but they are both talented players who can have great nights at any time.
Chance to Tighten Division
With under 20 games remaining for both teams in the regular season and just seven points separating them, this is one of the most important games all year for Toronto. Its chances to win the division will take a serious hit if the Leafs don’t get these important points.
Florida has been happy to trade scoring chances with opponents all year long, and in this game the Panthers find themselves up against a team that has almost as much firepower as they do.
With the home ice advantage Toronto has in addition to its edge on special teams, it's a great chance to send Ontario sports bettors home happy in what should be a high scoring, entertaining game.