For the Maple Leafs to climb out of the abyss vs. the Panthers, they must start with one win, one small step which could eventually, just maybe, progress to a much bigger leap.
Toronto took that little step on Wednesday — albeit just barely — as it staved off elimination with a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers in goaltender Joseph Woll’s first career postseason start. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe told the traveling media contingent that it was his team’s best effort of the season, a necessity with their backs against the wall facing a 3-0 series deficit.
These aren’t mere semantics from Keefe after avoiding the embarrassing prospect of being swept by a Panthers club that finished 19 points below the Maple Leafs during the regular season. Toronto’s maligned "Core Four" forwards, which failed to generate a goal during the opening three games of the series, responded when they were needed most in Game 4.
William Nylander put the Maple Leafs on the board and opened the scoring with a power-play marker that squeezed past Sergei Bobrovsky, then Mitch Marner scored the eventual game-winner in the third period, beating Bobrovsky from the point through an expert screen from Ryan O’Reilly.
If you ripped Marner for his performance in Game 3 — and I did — you have to give him his flowers for a critical two-point night. Marner showed a sense of urgency that was sorely lacking from his Game 3 disaster — notching a secondary assist on Nylander’s opening goal, setting up the critical tally with an expert zone entry before floating over the blue line and dishing the puck off to Michael Bunting, who found Nylander net-front. He was a net positive on Toronto’s nominal top line, featuring Auston Matthews and Calle Jarnkrok on this night.
Matthews led all Maple Leafs with a 73 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 along with a renewed focus on driving the Panthers’ out of position with the mere threat of his shot. Marner focused on suppressing shots and finding lanes for his teammates, winning puck battles, and Toronto’s superstars arrived when they were needed most.
Nylander was the lone member of the Core Four with a passable performance in Game 3, and throughout the series, he's operated as the Maple Leafs’ best shot creator. There has been some lazy criticism of Nylander, an erroneous notion that he’s indifferent to winning because he rarely throws checks. Nylander played like a man possessed in Game 2 and was finally rewarded for his efforts Wednesday after Bunting’s pass took a deflection right into his path.
For at least one night, Marner, Nylander and Matthews also staved off the inevitable referendum that would’ve commenced immediately if the Maple Leafs were swept. This current iteration of the Maple Leafs is the most talented group they’ve offered during the new millennium, with little to show for it other than a handful of individual accolades. John Tavares wasn’t rewarded on the scoresheet Wednesday but he registered a team-best five shots, including a breakaway where he was unlucky to beat Bobrovsky.
One small step to be sure, but at least the exit interviews, perhaps, won’t be as scathing.
In between the pipes, Woll was the uncertain element ahead of Game 4 and facing circumstances that few would envy, the 24-year-old elevated his play, preserved the Maple Leafs’ tenuous lead and inspired confidence that this group could potentially pull themselves out of an unfathomable 3-0 deficit.
He was calm, collected and made the case that he should be the starting goalie even if Ilya Samsonov is cleared to return from injury. This has been a rotating position all season — remember, at the outset of the year, Matt Murray was considered to be the most likely postseason starter in large part due to his playoff pedigree, winning two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017. There’s no iron law that Samsonov is the starting keeper and Woll, who excelled with a .924 save percentage in seven games with the Maple Leafs this season, is now imperative to the team’s deeper aspirations, reinvigorated by a timely road win.
"The aim is to not be thinking," Woll said with a smile post-game to Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie. “I think that’s a big thing I’ve come to, when I’m playing my best just trusting that I know what to do and just going out there and playing.
Joseph Woll's key to success? No thoughts. Just vibes. pic.twitter.com/4ljJGMRRXT
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 11, 2023
Of course, this being the Maple Leafs, it almost became too close for comfort. Luke Schenn submitted a stellar performance and his game-saving clearance effectively saved the Maple Leafs’ season, picking off Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe with Woll down and out of position.
This cannot be overstated — the Maple Leafs, despite their three overtime goals in Round 1, have shown a propensity to crack under pressure, especially during the final minutes of the season. Schenn’s cool and composed demeanor to save what would’ve been a certain game-tying goal was enormous in extending the series.
It’s just one game and, of course, Toronto’s season could come to a halt on Friday night in front of a likely unforgiving home crowd at Scotiabank Arena, frothing for a chance to put the pressure back on Florida this weekend. You can’t win the series overnight, but led by standout performances from Marner and Matthews, a veteran, season-saving stop from Schenn and a standout start from Woll — the heir apparent in net — the Maple Leafs live to fight another day.