Maple Leafs clawed by Panthers, now down 2-0 in series
The Maple Leafs second round safari could be a short one, their numbers reduced by an aggressive pack of Panthers and Toronto still looking for its first win.
Bulked up as they are for playoffs, they can’t keep Florida from laying a physical beating on them, while unable to counter with their offensive weapons.
The 3-2 win Thursday gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead in the series.
“That’s playoff hockey,” said Auston Matthews, among the Leafs forced to become fast learners through eight rough and tumble games with Tampa Bay and Florida. “Both teams are playing hard out there.”
Two hits in particular were under scrutiny by the Leafs, both by Sam Bennett, one knocking Matthew Knies out of the game, the other a crosscheck on Michael Bunting.
“It’s unfortunate, because Knies was playing so well,” said Leaf centre Ryan O’Reilly. “Hopefully he’s back next game.”
General manager Kyle Dubas was clearly steamed in the press box, while coach Sheldon Keefe held one of his shortest post-game sessions ever.
Losing Knies and the mistakes his team made with the lead had him doubly dour.
“Disappointing, baffling frankly,” Keefe said. “We didn’t make those mistakes one time in the last series.”
And now it’s happened twice, both at home, where the Leafs are a puzzling 1-4 in these playoffs.
Knies will be re-assessed Friday.
“He didn’t complete the game, so that’s not positive,” Keefe said. “In terms of the hit, I’m not going to comment, the league will looks at that. I’m sure the crosscheck on Bunting (two of them in front of the Florida net during a delayed penalty) was eerily similar to the one we saw on Auston last year in the outdoor game (Matthews was suspended for a retaliation on Rasmus Dahlin of the Sabres). We’ll see.”
Though the Leafs had the Panthers on the run early, their two-goal lead disappeared in a flash. The Panthers came hard, Matthew Tkachuk having already made his mark on a charging call that was the first targeted hit on Knies.
At least the Leafs will have plenty of time to plot a comeback with two days off before the series resumes in Florida and two more prior to Game 4.
That’s still a tall order as they’ve only rallied four times from a 2-0 deficit in franchise history, not since 1993 against Detroit and only once when those two defeats were at home, the legendary 1942 comeback in the final from an 0-3 hole.
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Keefe was quick to point out his team won all three in Tampa Bay last series, but Florida is playing a lot more like the Presidents’ Trophy winners of a year ago than a lucky wildcard team.
As the house was digesting news that Knies wouldn’t return, William Nylander, thrust into his spot with O’Reilly and Noel Acciari to begin the middle period, stumbled and lost the puck, with Aleksander Barkov scoring on the ensuing odd-man rush. Then as Matthews’s own-zone giveaway was quickly spun into defenceman Gustav Forsling’s second of the playoffs.
Given a power play on the Bennett cross check, they didn’t come close and Matthews was whistled for tripping as the period ended. Toronto killed that with Nylander finding a new gear and leading an attack that came oh so close to tying it on a few occasions.
The night began so promising for Toronto, another loud crowd at Scotiabank Arena.
It was the fourth line making the push on the opening goal, Alex Kerfoot jumping on a big rebound with David Kampf battling in front and Luke Schenn getting the initial point shot on goal.
Kerfoot then drew a tripping call that gave the power play redemption from Tuesday. As they did on their first two chances in Game 1, the first unit had full control with crisp passes, this time getting O’Reilly free for a one-timer.
When Tkachuk ran Knies, they almost clicked again. But Toronto’s surge was stopped abruptly on an own-zone muck-up. Timothy Liljegren was bumped off the puck and John Tavares fell, allowing Sam Reinhart to centre for Anton Lundell. Neither did the goal reflect well on Mark Giordano, who dropped to a team-worst minus 7.
Ilya Samsonov was totally unprepared for that play, but responded with a stretch pad save on Aaron Ekblad before the Panthers roared out in the middle period.
“We just have to stay with it, though we’re not in an ideal spot,” said Tavares. “We have to continue to challenge their netminder (Sergei Bobrovsky. But they’re ready to pounce on our mistakes with the skill they have.
“We have a tough test on the road, one we have to raise out level for, but one we’re excited about.”
Keefe announced one lineup change pre-game, Sam Lafferty for Zach Aston-Reese, allowing Kerfoot to switch back to his familiar left wing.
Bunting joined Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Matthews’s assist on O’Reilly’s goal tying the franchise record for the longest points streak in a playoff year, eight games with 11 points.
It would be a major letdown after finally getting to the second stage after 19 years to bow out quickly. But the Leafs have made too many errors through the first two matches against a Florida team attempting to turn around its own post-season history.