Maple Leafs a study of contradictions as Panthers look like Team of Destiny

A controversial call in the second period helped seal Toronto's fate, as Florida advanced to play Carolina in the Eastern Conference final.

TORONTO — During a critical year of the core’s timeline, this season promised to be different than the previous six for the Toronto Maple Leafs, pushing in all their chips in pursuit of an elusive Stanley Cup. And yet after a hard-fought five-game series where the Florida Panthers emerged victorious in a scoreline that doesn’t fully account for the minimal gap between the Atlantic Division foes, the Maple Leafs are back where they started, throwing everything they could at their second-round opponent but it ultimately didn’t matter.

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said his team’s first three games afforded no margin for error and that he was proud of his group’s efforts in the Game 5 overtime loss. In many ways, that’s a neat summarization of where the Maple Leafs stand during this mid-May juncture of the playoffs: a hyper-talented group that was capable of more, resigned to the idea that their best wasn’t good enough to knock off a team they finished 19 points above during the regular season.

“I believe we had a team good enough to win a Stanley Cup, and we didn’t do that,” Keefe said post-game.

The Maple Leafs have bowed out of the playoffs after a 4-1 series loss to the Panthers. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)
The Maple Leafs have bowed out of the playoffs after a 4-1 series loss to the Panthers. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

It’s likely that we’ll soon regard Friday’s Game 5 as a classic postseason tilt that will eventually graduate to late-night programming on a sports nostalgia channel, but in real time, the final game of Maple Leafs-Panthers had everything you’d want from an elimination game. Florida raced out to a 2-0 lead at the first intermission and it felt like a funeral procession inside Scotiabank Arena. Aaron Ekblad beat Joseph Woll through the wickets after his defense partner Gustav Forsling froze Toronto’s defense with a fake slap shot. Carter Verhaeghe, who tormented Toronto throughout the series, beat Woll from the side wall in transition, and it looked like the Maple Leafs would finish another ill-fated season without any dignity.

The second period was a different story entirely as Morgan Rielly almost singlehandedly brought the Maple Leafs back from the dead. Rielly was arguably the Maple Leafs’ best player during the postseason, coming off a regular season where he drew plenty of criticism for his erratic play. During the playoffs, Rielly, in tandem with Luke Schenn, were Toronto’s only defensive pair that rose to the challenge and he elevated his offensive game to a new tier. Rielly scored Toronto’s first goal of Friday's contest, beating Sergei Bobrovsky through a David Kampf screen to halt the funeral procession.

There have been plenty of officiating controversies surrounding the Maple Leafs throughout the playoffs but those have primarily been related to player safety — should Michael Bunting have earned a three-game suspension? Why didn’t Sam Bennett miss any time for giving 20-year-old rookie Matthew Knies a concussion?

Game 5 entered the theater of the absurd when Rielly appeared to score the game-tying goal, cutting to the center of the net and apparently tucking the puck past Bobrovsky. Rielly wheeled away to celebrate — perhaps an act of gamesmanship — but the referees conferred and decided they had the intention to blow the whistle prior to the puck crossing the line.

It’s a bizarre sequence but to be abundantly clear, the Maple Leafs didn’t lose because of this blown call and it will surely be examined like Richard Nixon’s White House tapes in the Greater Toronto Area this summer. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman obtained an official explanation.

The best way to describe the Maple Leafs, short of staring into the sun, is that they’re a study in contradictions, especially when you look at the predictive data versus reality. Toronto’s Core Four — consisting of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander and Mitch Marner — registered 23 shots at 5-on-5, 26 shots in all situations.

Nylander was the lone player from the core to beat Bobrovsky in Game 5, sending Scotiabank Arena into a frenzy when he flew in and tossed a wrist shot toward the net from a perpendicular angle with four minutes and 27 seconds remaining in the third period. After an absentee first period, the Core Four gave everything they could and then some and it ultimately didn’t matter.

And now comes the referendum on the Maple Leafs, a notion that annoys or angers the players. After the game, Marner balked at the idea that this would be the last season he would play with Matthews, Tavares, Nylander and Rielly. As you would expect after a loss of this magnitude, many of the players made available looked like they had been crying.

“We all got years left on our contracts,” Marner said. “I mean, I don't know. It’s not up to us, but we got a lot of belief in this group. We got a lot of belief in that core. It sucks right now, but I got belief.”

Woll surrendered two early goals but from there onwards, the 24-year-old rose to the occasion with 41 saves, while stopping an entire goal above expected. There’s no dignity or decency in the Maple Leafs’ season-ending loss without a stellar performance from Woll, who spent most of his time with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies during the 2022-23 campaign. Matthews made sure to console Woll after Panthers forward Nick Cousins scored the series-ending goal, but elected to keep the contents of that conversation private.

As for the Panthers, they’ve now assumed the "Team of Destiny" mantle. They knocked off the 65-win Boston Bruins in seven games while trailing three games to one. And now they’ve defeated the Maple Leafs, who entered as a resounding favourite, so much so that their fan base demanded they wanted the Panthers upon advancing past the first round for the first time since 2004.

Matthew Tkachuk — who was also named as a Hart Trophy finalist — couldn’t help but poke fun at the Maple Leafs’ fan base, both in his immediate post-game interview and podium appearance and frankly, why shouldn’t he? It would be the height of contradiction to ask Tkachuk, Cousins and the victorious Panthers to be humble when no one thought they’d be here.

Bobrovksy didn’t enter the playoffs as the Panthers’ starter but he was phenomenal this series. If you want to chalk up the Maple Leafs’ scoring woes to getting "goalied," that lets the Core Four, who account for 49 percent of the team’s salary cap off the hook. Matthews, in particular, highlights this perplexing dynamic. He led all NHL forwards in blocked shots during the regular season and postseason and at the time of this filing, he ranks second in individual expected goals at 5-on-5 during the postseason.

And yet, you can expect all the goals you want, create as many chances as you’d like, submit a tremendous effort and yet, when you post zero goals in the most crucial series of your playing career with Hart Trophy pedigree, the ensuing criticism is warranted.

As the sun sets on the Maple Leafs’ 2022-23 season, you have to view this team as a study of contradictions. Their Core Four submitted their best statistical efforts, they got over the first-round hump, they made several deadline acquisitions that provided toughness and leadership (Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari), ancillary depth (Sam Lafferty, Erik Gustafsson) and received plus-goaltending from Woll and the injured Ilya Samsonov.

Keefe repeated post-game that it was a missed opportunity for his group and now the post-mortem awaits.