Panthers/Leafs not locked in for Round 1; Leafs/Bruins still possible

Ryan Smitheram
April 16, 2024  (2:34 PM)

Auston Matthews playing hard against the Bruins
Photo credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs will help decide who they face in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with their game against the Florida Panthers tonight.

On April 2nd, the Boston Bruins were four points clear of the Florida Panthers for top spot in the Atlantic Division as the Panthers were in the midst of a 2-7-1 streak. Since that time, the Bruins have gone 6-4-0 and the Panthers have won three in a row while going 5-4-1 in their last 10 games, closing the gap atop the division to just one point. Both teams have one game remaining and both play tonight. The Panthers, as we know, take on the Leafs, while the Bruins face off against the Ottawa Senators.
While the Leafs have been locked into third in the division essentially since April 1st, the battle between the Panthers and Bruins means that the Leafs still don't know who they will play when the playoffs begin on Saturday. It's an unusual situation for the Leafs to be in as the past couple of seasons has seen the Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning essentially guaranteed to face each other in round one by January.

How likely are the Panthers and Leafs to actually meet in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

With tonight being the final game of the season for the Bruins and Panthers, a Bruins win against Ottawa would give them top spot in the Atlantic, meaning that the result between the Leafs and Panthers would be null. It's currently unconfirmed if the Bruins will choose to rest some of their stars like Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy, but if they do, it could give the Senators an opportunity to set up a Leafs/Bruins first round series. For that to happen, the Leafs would need the following to happen:
Ottawa defeats Boston in regulation or overtime/shootout and Florida beats the Leafs in overtime/shootout
Ottawa beats Boston in regulation and the Leafs beat the Panthers in overtime/shootout
Any other win/loss scenario would lead to a Panthers/Leafs first round matchup – something many Leaf fans are probably hoping for just so the Leafs can extract some revenge for last year's second round defeat.

Who would the Leafs rather face?

When it comes to a preferred matchup for round one, the numbers suggest that it would be Florida, but either series will be a grind. In the regular season, the Leafs were 0-2-2 against the Bruins, while they are 2-1-0 ahead of their final game against the Panthers tonight. Some fans will prefer the Bruins, others will prefer the Panthers, but if the Leafs want to get past the second round, a first round series against the Bruins makes more sense.
In terms of matchups, the Panthers have more players that are able to match up against the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares and Mitch Marner. As we saw in last year's playoffs, the Panthers were able to effectively shutdown the Leafs' "Core 4" at will thanks to the depth of their forward group. Matthews, Nylander, Marner and Tavares combined for just 3 goals and 9 points in the five games last post-season while the likes of Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Reinhart, Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe combined for 6 goals and 15 points.
Things have changed drastically since the Bruins and Leafs last met in the playoffs in 2019, when 21-year-old Matthews and Marner, along with a 29-year-old Tavares and 22-year-old Nylander, combined for 18 points in seven games. The Bruins no longer have Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci to shadow Tavares and Matthews, or bruising defenseman Zdeno Chara on the blueline. Yes, the Bruins still have players capable of shutting down the core of the Leafs, but there is no one nearly as good as Bergeron and Krejci were.
This season, Matthews is a point-per-game player against both teams, while Marner has 4 points in six (well, five and a half) combined games. Nylander has struggled against both teams posting just 3 assists in 7 games and Tavares is similar to Nylander, having just 1 goal and 3 points in 7 games.
In goal, Joseph Woll is 1-2-1 against the Panthers and Bruins heading into tonight and Samsonov is 1-1-1. Samsonov struggled in his two games against Florida, but was superb in his loss to Boston. On the other hand, Woll was the opposite, struggling against the Bruins and stellar against the Panthers.
Just based on the numbers, it's become clear that there is no real advantage to playing one or the other in round one as the Leafs key players are split 50/50 in terms of teams they have success against. Of course, regular season struggles or successes don't always mean the same will happen in the playoffs, but it does give you something to think about.
Personally, I would prefer the Leafs play the Bruins in the first round and let Tampa and Florida beat the snot out of each other in a battle of the Sunshine State. Who would you like to see the Leafs play? Let us know in the poll below.
16 AVRIL   |   256 ANSWERS
Panthers/Leafs not locked in for Round 1; Leafs/Bruins still possible

Who would you like to see the Leafs play in round 1?

Florida6123.8 %
Boston19576.2 %
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