TORONTO – Forty-seven seconds. That’s how long it takes for your night to turn from heaven to hell in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s how thin the margin for error is when you’ve reached the second round. The Leafs were bound to learn many a lesson during their first trip to this battleground in 19 years, and they endured a painful one Thursday.
Early in Game 2 at Scotiabank Arena, the Leafs looked poised to punch back on the Florida Panthers emphatically and tie their second-round series 1-1. The Leafs swarmed them for 12 shots in the first 7:14 and put two quick goals past Sergei Bobrovsky. The second came on some remarkable patience from Mitch Marner, spinning away from traffic and threading a pass to Ryan O’Reilly for a power play goal. The Leafs had jump and confidence. Their skill appeared to be overwhelming the Panthers, who couldn’t stay out of the penalty box.
But six minutes later: a lapse behind the Toronto net. Timothy Liljegren got muscled off a puck a little too easily on a hit from Eetu Luostarinen. Add in a blown tire in defensive zone coverage from John Tavares, and the cage was suddenly so wide open for Anton Lundell that Leaf goaltender Ilya Samsonov didn’t even see him in time to stop the shot. That sucked some air out of the building. Then, 19 seconds into the second period: some careless neutral zone puck management from William Nylander, a turnover and a goal for Aleksander Barkov on a shot Samsonov later said he didn’t see.
Just 47 seconds after that? Blueliner Gustav Forsling crept out of T.J. Brodie’s peripheral vision, received a pass from Matthew Tkachuk, and bang-bang, the Panthers took a 3-2 lead that would hold as the final score. All three goals were the result of brain cramps by the Leafs, who are now a dumbfounding 1-4 at home in these playoffs.
“The difference I’d say, just looking at these two games, not so much last series, is we didn’t find our way back,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “We got down on the road too and found our way back. This one is disappointing. We were rolling early in the game, and we just give it back to them. Those are things that we haven’t done and, frankly, you just can’t do if you’re serious about winning.”
It was a strange game in that, for so much of Thursday’s action, the Leafs were controlling the play. At 5-on-5, they held the edge in scoring chances, high-danger chances and expected goals. They had the crowd – and Leaf bench – gasping time and again while pressing for the tie as red-hot Panther goaltender Bobrovsky stole chance after chance away.
“I must have jumped out of my seat about three times, I thought we had the puck in the net,” said Leafs superstar Auston Matthews after Game 2.
The second line of Calle Jarnkrok, Tavares and Nylander buzzed. Nylander was seemingly everywhere, leading all skaters with a game-high six individual scoring chances at 5-on-5, but he couldn’t convert one. Nylander’s giveaway on the second goal will go down as his most impactful play of the game. It was a microcosm of Toronto’s night: competitive, but not competitive enough in those pivotal moments. The meltdown at the start of the second period left Keefe stunned.
“Disappointing. Baffling, frankly,’ he said. ‘We didn’t make those mistakes one time in the last series.”
As we watch this team do a lot but not enough to win, one has to wonder: what represents a summit for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the year 2023?
That was the obvious question the second Tavares’ seeing-eye shot trickled past Andrei Vasilevskiy last weekend, sending Toronto to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in almost two decades. Would we see a Leaf teem freed from the burden of breaking the first-round curse? Or would an adrenaline dump ensue, causing the Leafs to over-relax and almost expect things to get easier?
The Leafs were not the hungrier club in Game 1 against a Panthers team fresh off perhaps the greatest playoff upset in NHL history, having dethroned the 65-win Boston Bruins. The Panthers’ punishing forecheck, led by the Matthew Tkachuk line, got the better of them. After the Leafs roared back to tie that game, they let up for a second, just long enough for Carter Verhaeghe to slip behind the defense for the winning goal. And similar lapses plagued Toronto in Game 2.
“We had control of the game for a bit there, but a couple little plays gave them the momentum,” O’Reilly said. “It’s tough. Dig a hole. They’re a good team, played well. Would’ve been nice to pop one in the third and make a game of it. They earned that one tonight. We’ve got to refocus, self reflect a bit and turn the page.”
Do the Leafs want this badly enough? Are they willing to pay a sufficient price to win more than a single playoff round?
The rough-and-tumble Panthers appear to be, particularly center Sam Bennett, who was a wrecking ball in Game 2, on the right and wrong side of the law. He knocked promising Leaf rookie forward Matthew Knies out of the game with a wrestling-style slam behind the Panther net in the first period. Bennett later caught Michael Bunting with a cross-check to the neck, which resulted a minor penalty but could end up earning Bennett a call from the Department of Player Safety to boot. Time will tell.
After the game, Tavares expressed his distaste for the hit on Knies but also spoke of trying to stay disciplined. That makes sense to a point; it’s risky to exact vengeance once you’re trailing in a game and trying to stay out of the box. But the Leafs are rolling around in the mud right now against an opponent willing to gouge them in the eye and kick them in the family jewels. And they did not make Bennett pay any toll for taking liberties.
Now, the Leafs head out on the road, where they are a perfect 3-0 in these playoffs, with all their wins coming in overtime. That is the proving ground where they showed their mettle and willingness to weather the storm in the first round. Starting Sunday, we find out if they can do it again – or whether they’ll go down as a team simply “Happy to Be Here” and not willing to push hard enough to win another series.
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