Florida Opponents Offer Playoff Dress Rehearsal For the Toronto Maple Leafs

Upcoming games against their Atlantic Division rivals from Florida offer an early playoff preview. The dress rehearsals will go a long way in determining the Leafs postseason lineup.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Florida Panthers
Toronto Maple Leafs v Florida Panthers / Joel Auerbach/GettyImages
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With the majority of the regular season behind them, the Toronto Maple Leafs now take on the important task of getting themselves set up for optimal performance in the games that matter most.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are just around the corner and the Toronto Maple Leafs have lots of work to do.

Their playoff seeding is still to be determined. And, just as significant as their place in the standings is deciding on a lineup to set them up for postseason success.

Fortunately, the NHL schedule-maker provided the Leafs with four games, out of their last ten, against their Florida-based Atlantic Division rivals. Two contests this week plus two more to close the season bring forth an ideal opportunity for the Leafs to see where they stand.

Florida Opponents Offer Ideal Playoff Dress Rehearsal For the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs have rebounded nicely from a subpar, "immature" effort last week against the New Jersey Devils. Following that 6-3 loss, came solid wins over the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres.

While the Capitals are still fighting for their playoff lives, the Leafs have recently owned Alex Ovechkin and company. The victory over the Sabres was satisfying in avenging a December blowout loss, but a "road" victory over the forever rudderless Buffalo squad is not much of a statement.

This week's schedule brings more intrigue.

The Florida Panthers were the Cinderella story during last year's playoffs and are the pick by many to be the last team standing this year. The Tampa Bay Lightning have the pedigree of a champion and are heating up at the right time.

By Thursday, the Leafs will have a much clearer picture of how capable their team is. Both the Panthers and the Lightning still have lots to play for. The Panthers are in a tight race with the Boston Bruins for first in the Atlantic while the Lightning are only four points behind the Leafs for third in the division.

The Return of Marner and Rielly Adds to the Intrigue

The return of Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner appears to be imminent. Perhaps, Rielly returned for the game against the Panthers (this was written before) with Marner on track to suit up against the Lightning.

Their returns will have all sorts of ramifications to the Leafs lineup. Head coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff will have plenty of decisions to make.

Does the line of Auston Matthews, Max Domi, and Tyler Bertuzzi stay together? Does Marner bump one of them down the depth chart? Plus, Marner's return brings the decision of who to sit.

Ryan Reaves would be the obvious choice, but will Keefe want him in against the Lightning at the expense of Nick Robertson?

Rielly's return to action will also necessitate change on the blue line. One of Mark Giordano or Conor Timmins will likely sit. More decisions will come whenever Timothy Liljegren and Joel Edmundson are deemed healthy.

Special team units will also be affected. Marner and Rielly will both take spots on the first power-play unit. The Leafs play with the man advantage desperately needs a spark.

Both games will also give valuable feedback on the Leafs goaltending. At this point, the start for the first game of the playoffs is Ilya Samsonov's to lose. That could quickly change based on their play in these important games against fellow playoff participants.

The results from the other six games remaining on the Leafs schedule are secondary. Those opponents are fringe teams or completely out of the playoff picture.

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This week's contests are the start of valuable feedback for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They will provide the first opportunity for the Leafs to get their house in order before the real work begins.