'Disappointing, baffling': Panthers down sloppy Maple Leafs to grab 2-0 series lead

·5 min read

TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe took his seat at the microphone sporting a blank expression.

It was the same look the Maple Leafs head coach had after his team gifted the Florida Panthers two goals in 47 disastrous seconds.

Sergei Bobrovsky then took over from there.

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The veteran goaltender made 35 saves as Florida once again took advantage of a couple crucial Toronto mistakes to pick up a 3-2 victory and take a 2-0 lead Thursday in their second-round playoff series.

"Disappointing, baffling," Keefe said to begin one of the shortest press conferences of his career. "We didn't make those mistakes one time in the last series."

He spoke in the morning about how this iteration of the Leafs was smarter and more responsible — especially in the franchise's first-round victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning that ended 19 years of playoff heartbreak — despite a couple errors costing them Game 1 against Florida.

"That's why it's baffling," he said on a follow-up question Thursday night.

"(Go) back home, look in the mirror," Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov added. "And ask what I need to do more? This is what we need to do — everybody."

Anton Lundell, with a goal and an assist, Aleksander Barkov and Gustav Forsling scored for Florida, which beat the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in seven games, including three times on the road, before taking two more at Scotiabank Arena.

"It's perspective," Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said. "That's five games in nine nights of as intense, emotional pressure you can put on a hockey team. We've been on an airplane for a while. We didn't think we had much in our legs.

"It was just about character and it was just about fighting through it and battling."

Ryan O'Reilly and Alexander Kerfoot replied for Toronto, which blew an early 2-0 lead. Samsonov stopped 26 shots.

The best-of-seven series now shifts to Sunrise, Fla., for Games 3 and 4 on Sunday and Wednesday with the Leafs facing a steep climb against an opponent with a relentless forecheck that baffled Boston and is now giving Toronto fits.

"We're not just running around like animals," Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk said. "We're just trying to play our identity."

"Not an ideal spot," Leafs captain John Tavares said of his team's predicament. "A chance to regroup here and look forward to getting on the road. Going to be a tough test, but one we've got to raise our level."

Up 2-1 following a spirited, chippy first period, catastrophe struck for Toronto early in the second.

Barkov tied things just 19 seconds in on a shot from well out Samsonov said he didn't see for his second goal of the post-season.

Things got even worse at 1:06 thanks to some head-scratching play with the puck in the defensive zone when Mitch Marner flipped an ill-advised pass to Auston Matthews, who in turn couldn't get it out.

Florida quickly countered, with Forsling finishing off a setup from Tkachuk — his fourth assist of the series — for the defenceman's second of the post-season and a 3-2 lead.

The shell-shocked Leafs took a while to recover before Nylander hit the post with a shot that also hit Bobrovsky in the back and stayed out. Florida defenceman Brandon Montour then found iron on Samsonov at the other end.

Tavares had a great chance in front before Josh Mahura took a Nylander shot off the visor that left a trail of blood on the ice as he exited for the locker room to get repairs.

Toronto came out for the third with plenty of urgency, but couldn't solve Bobrovsky, who has started to rediscover his Vezina Trophy-winning form in these playoffs after losing the starting job late in the regular season to third-stringer Alex Lyon.

"Played awesome," Tkachuk said. "He's been driving it for us ever since he's come back in."

Tavares was stopped in alone on the Florida goaltender and Nylander hit another post. The Leafs winger was also denied in tight with five minutes left in regulation.

"I must have jumped out of my seat about three times," Matthews. "I thought we had the puck in the net … laying right there, just missed."

The home side continued to press with Samsonov on the bench for an extra attacker, but couldn't find a way past Bobrovsky.

"We just work hard," Barkov said. "We believe in each other, we believe in our system. Bob has been huge for us."

Samsonov was asked if he feels more pressure with his opposite stealing wins at the other end.

"I don't give a (expletive)," he replied before adding: "I'm doing my work, he's doing his work."

Toronto dropped the opener 4-2, but got off to a flying start Thursday when Kerfoot popped home a rebound for his second at 2:20 of the first.

Unable to connect on two early power plays in Game 1, the Leafs made it 2-0 on a man advantage at 5:10 when Marner dangled around the offensive zone and found O'Reilly to bury his third.

The hard-hitting Panthers, who upset the record-setting Bruins in seven games to make the second round, stayed on message and started to push back as the period wore on, including Sam Bennett putting Matthew Knies in a headlock and slamming him to the ice.

The Toronto rookie finished the period, but didn't return for the second. Keefe didn't have an update post-game.

"I didn't love it," Tavares said of the Bennett-Knies sequence. "And then (it) results in an injury."

Florida responded at 11:13 when Lundell scored his first after linemate Eetu Luostarinen crushed Leafs defenceman Timothy Liljegren behind Samsonov's net and Tavares fell as the Panthers started to turn the tide.

"It wasn't a perfect game for us by any means," Maurice said. "But I didn't expect that from my team. I didn't expect them to be perfect today. I just want them to stay in the fight.

"That's what they did."

The Leafs now need to do the same.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2023.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press