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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Maple Leafs, Panthers and Islanders

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The Canes are home for Thanksgiving as they wrap up their homestand this week.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Maple Leafs

Wednesday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Anaheim Ducks Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs enter Thanksgiving week in the U.S. with a sparkling 14-6 record, and coming off an impressive west coast road trip that saw them sweep three games in California. Even with Auston Matthews lost to a shoulder injury for at least the remainder of November, and with the much discussed William Nylander holdout extending well into a second month, the Leafs have managed to build an impressive start on both sides of the puck.

Surely some of that credit belongs to the newest Leaf, superstar John Tavares, who has provided a team-high 12 goals in his first 20 games in Toronto. Beyond Tavares, though, there are certainly a number of impressive standouts who can take their share of credit for what appears to be a team capable of making a run for that elusive Stanley Cup that has escaped the Leafs’ grasp for over a half-century.

While the offensive production has been a constant over the past few seasons as the Leafs have built a dynamic young core of blazing-fast and highly skilled forwards, the biggest improvement this season, which continued a trend from last year, is the continued development of the all-around defensive game. Morgan Rielly has emerged as one of the elite defensemen in the Eastern Conference, and his defensive presence has been backed up by an equally impressive offensive start (nine goals, 16 assists). Jake Gardiner has continued to play like a top-four defenseman, and emerging players such as Nikita Zaitsev and Travis Dermott have been guided along well. The veteran experience of former Hurricane Ron Hainsey has appeared to have had a good impact on the entire blueline.

And the discussion of the Leafs’ defensive end would not be complete without mentioning the fabulous work of netminder Frederik Andersen. His .934 save percentage and 2.08 goals against average has provided plenty of support for what is most certainly one of the more high-octane attacks in the NHL.

While Carolina certainly catches a break with Matthews out and Nylander still holding out, in order for Carolina to have a chance to earn two points on Wednesday, they must find a way to keep their nemesis Tavares in check. Tavares has shredded the Canes in the past with 22 goals and 41 total points in his career against Carolina, both career highs.

To stay relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff race, you have to be capable of beating tough opponents, especially on home ice. Wednesday night is just another chance to take the temperature of what has become a rather inconsistent Hurricanes team. They have the talent and speed to skate with the Maple Leafs for 60 minutes, but can they begin to prove on a nightly basis that they can provide a consistent effort and performance? That is the next step that needs to be taken, and taken against a quality opponent.

What to Watch For

  • Without Matthews, Tavares has slotted on the top line along with Mitch Marner, who actually leads the Leafs in points (26). With their forward core a bit thinner, what that pairing and their impact on the game.
  • While Rielly has been phenomenal this season, he has been paired at times with Hainsey, another lefty, who has been playing his off side. The results have been good so far for the former Cane.

Florida Panthers

Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Florida Panthers at New York Rangers Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After a very difficult start, the Florida Panthers scrapped together a five-game winning streak before losing their last two contests. In last place in the Atlantic Division the Panthers certainly have an uphill battle to fight, but at 7-7-3, they have steadied themselves enough to remain relevant in what is sure to be a tough race for the final few playoff spots.

While many saw Florida as a playoff contender in the preseason, at the quarter point of the season the issue that has held the Panthers back has been goal-scoring. At 27th in the NHL in goals, Florida has certainly under-performed. The scoring issues have been across the board, as Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman both lead the team in goals and points with eight goals and 18 points respectively.

The disappointment at this point comes from lessened production from Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad. That quartet combined for 271 points just last season, but 17 games into the season the group has only produced 52 points. Based on their history, expect a bit of a market correction for both that group and the Panthers scoring in general.

In net, Roberto Luongo has returned from injury to reclaim the starter’s role after James Reimer struggled a bit in the early going. Luongo has posted a 4-2 record in seven starts and provided a solid .918 save percentage. The 39 year-old veteran has played fewer than 40 games in each of the last two seasons, but if he can remain healthy, the Panthers are likely to push the vet in net as much as possible in order to give themselves the best chance to remain in the playoff race.

The Hurricanes will be looking to put consistent quality efforts together as the season continues, and Friday is a terrific example of a game that Carolina has allowed to slip in recent years. At the end of a homestand, after a holiday, and against a team currently behind them in the standings that is a potential foe in terms of playoff contention. Can Carolina sustain a level of effort and execution that will allow them to take two points with them before they hit the road?

What to Watch For

  • The goalie carousel has continued for the Canes with Curtis McElhinney returning to the net on Sunday and producing a 2-1 win. Will Carolina continue to try and establish Scott Darling as the top guy, or will Rod Brind’Amour ride his nominally hotter hand in net? With a back-to-back, expect both to play in the Friday-Saturday setup.
  • Brett Pesce remains out with a sore knee, but he could return before this homestand is over. When he returns, how will Brind’Amour scramble his pairings?

New York Islanders

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at Barclays Center

NHL: New York Islanders at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Canes will make their only trip to Barclays Center (they will play in Nassau Coliseum in January) to take on the Islanders for the third time this season. If you missed the early discussions of the Islanders, check these previous Behind Enemy Lines articles out for more information: Prior to the opener; Prior to October 28th matchup.

The Islanders have been one of the early surprises in the league, slotted in second place currently in the Metropolitan Division, the 10-7-2 start has shifted the view of some regarding this team as they were viewed as a rebuild on the fly after John Tavares bolted for Toronto this past offseason.

The grinding style of play that new coach Barry Trotz has promoted has certainly paid dividends, but it has also taken a physical toll as their injured list now sports Casey Cizikas (lower body), Andrew Ladd (right leg), and Matt Martin (upper body). The physical play and an increased emphasis on cleaning up the defensive zone has contributed to a massive turnaround on that end of the ice. As such, Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have rewarded the play in front of them with a combined .920 save percentage in 19 games to date.

If the Isles can continue their effort level and physicality from the first portion of the season, they may have a chance to continue to surpass expectations through the winter and into the spring.

What to Watch For

  • Thomas Greiss has confounded the Canes in two matchups thus far this season. On a back-to-back, expect to see him get a third crack at the Canes on Saturday.
  • After bursting on the scene as a rookie, Mathew Barzal has been limited to only two goals in 19 games. He has contributed a team-high 16 assists, but as he evolves as a scorer, expect Barzal to eventually find the net and find it in bunches.