Maple Leafs in tough down 3-0 to Panthers: 'Anything worth achieving is hard'

·4 min read

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Sheldon Keefe thought this script was a thing of the past.

The Toronto Maple Leafs overcame a maddening hurdle and confounding mental block when they topped the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round of the playoffs for their first series victory in nearly two decades.

After a string of frustrating post-season failures, the team's high-paid stars finally excelled in key moments, the goaltending held up, and the Original Six franchise — at long last — had some bounces go its way.

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Leafs Nation could finally exhale and celebrate. As it turns out, only for a few days.

Three games into Toronto's subsequent date with the Florida Panthers, a lot of the old and ugly narratives have bubbled back to the surface with the team facing a surprising 3-0 deficit in their best-of-seven matchup.

"It's felt a lot more like what we've been through in the past," Keefe, Toronto's head coach since late 2019, said of a trying week since the Tampa triumph. "It's been challenging. It's been difficult to understand. Yet, it's our reality and it's where we're at."

One thing that's been abundantly clear is the Leafs' best players haven't come close to pulling their weight on another big stage.

Like playoff disappointments against Boston (2019), Columbus (2020), Montreal (2021) and Tampa (2022), the so-called "Core Four" of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander have disappeared when the stakes are highest.

Matthews hasn't scored in three games, while Marner and Nylander haven't found the back of the net in seven straight. Tavares has one goal — his bank-shot clincher in OT of Game 6 against the Lighting — over the same span.

"The focus has got to be on doing what we can control and focus on the things that really, truly matter in terms of the process and the details of the game," Keefe said on a video conference call with reporters Monday. "The moment anybody gets bogged down with the fact that they haven't scored … now you're really working uphill."

Briefly favourites to hoist the Stanley Cup early last week after Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston — by the Panthers in seven games — and defending champions Colorado were bounced in the first round, the Leafs scored 18 times in the first four outings against the Lightning.

They have just 10 total goals in their last five contests, including six combined in three losses to the Panthers ahead of Wednesday's Game 4 in Sunrise, Fla., with Toronto facing elimination.

"Focus on what we can control here, what's ahead of us," Keefe, whose team has won once in regulation these playoffs, said of his message with 48 hours to prepare for what could be the group's last time battling together in 2023. "Our job is to win one hockey game and not get focused or bogged down by anything beyond that. We can't control the big picture.

"We can only control one game."

Keefe said Toronto needs to focus on what went well against Tampa, namely the resilience shown in comeback victories and a trio of OT victories.

"Even at times when we were on our heels and the opposition was really coming, we didn't make the big mistake," he said. "Our team found different ways to win in that series.

"And we have found different ways to lose here in this one."

The Leafs dropped Games 1 and 2 at home 4-2 and 3-2 to Florida before falling 3-2 in overtime Sunday to tumble down a well only four clubs in NHL history have climbed out of.

Keefe has liked parts of Toronto's performances in the series, but the roster has been unable to break through against a tough, stingy opponent that's been in playoff mode for months after just barely making the spring dance.

"Lots of belief," he said. "The Florida Panthers are very comfortable, and it's our job to make them a little less comfortable."

The task of coming all the way back from a 3-0 deficit — one achieved by Toronto in 1942, the New York Islanders in 1975, Philadelphia in 2010 and Los Angeles in 2014 — is daunting.

Keefe is keeping the faith in his team and his stars. He doesn't have any other choice.

"It's meant to be hard," he said. "Anything worth achieving is hard. We'll do all that we can to have our group ready to get a win on Wednesday.

"And bring it back to Toronto."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2023.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press