Panthers survive blown two-goal lead, down mistake-prone Maple Leafs 4-2 in Game 1
TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe watched his team commit two mistakes — blunders he didn't see in the first round of the playoffs — that directly led to goals against.
After the Maple Leafs recovered to get back even, another costly error wound up being one too many to overcome.
Toronto now finds itself in the exact spot it was in after Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning — trailing the series and looking for answers.
Carter Verhaeghe scored the winner, Sergei Bobrovsky made 34 saves and Matthew Tkachuk set up three goals as the Florida Panthers survived a blown 2-0 lead to down the Leafs 4-2 in Tuesday's opener of their second-round matchup.
"They force you to make mistakes," said Keefe, Toronto's head coach. "But I thought we made some mistakes that we didn't necessarily make in the last series."
Sam Bennett, with a goal and an assist, Nick Cousins and Brandon Montour provided the rest of the offence for Florida, which roared back from a 3-1 deficit to stun the record-setting Boston Bruins with three straight victories and take that first-round matchup in seven games Sunday. Aleksander Barkov had two assists.
"If we're a little fatigued because that (Bruins) series was heavy, it's kind of our normal day," said Panthers head coach Paul Maurice, whose group had less than 48 hours to recover before hitting the ice in Toronto. "When you look at our schedule at the end of January, it was brutal. And that's when we started to play our best hockey.
"So being in the mud, as we would say, we're kind of used to it."
Matthew Knies, with his first NHL goal, and Michael Bunting replied for Toronto.
The Leafs ended a generation of misery Saturday when John Tavares scored in overtime of Game 6 against Tampa to see the Original Six franchise advance in the post-season for the first time since 2004, but were unable to carry that momentum forward.
Ilya Samsonov stopped 24 shots for the Leafs, who host Game 2 with the Panthers on Thursday before the series shifts to South Florida.
"They played well," said Toronto defenceman Luke Schenn, whose team lost 7-3 to the Lightning in Game 1 on the same ice last round. "But a lot of the goals that were scored were self-inflicted.
"We still have a lot more to give."
Tied 2-2 late in the second period with the Leafs pushing, the never-say-die visitors — the Bruins learned that first-hand — responded to silence Scotiabank Arena's towel-waving crowd.
Verhaeghe, who scored the dramatic winner in Game 7 against Boston, took a pass from Anthony Duclair and gave his team the lead for good when he beat Samsonov on a breakaway at 17:47 for his fourth goal of the playoffs.
"The one guy we definitely do not want to give a breakaway to," Keefe lamented. "Big part of the plan going in is how he can jump into those holes … we cannot make that mistake.
"That's a tough one."
Toronto had a couple opportunities to tie it in the third, but never really threatened Bobrovsky before Montour blasted a one-timer on a delayed penalty at 12:24 after Leafs defenceman Jake McCabe felled Tkachuk.
"As the hockey goes on we've come together to support each other and help each other," Bobrovsky said. "We've become like a family every day (since) the playoffs started."
The Florida goaltender was under siege late, including a terrific toe stop on William Nylander with just over a minute left in regulation on Toronto's best chance to get back within one.
"We made some plays," said Leafs winger Mitch Marner, announced as one of three nominees for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward.
"Gave them too many clean looks at our net."
The Leafs hit the ice in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since Jeremy Roenick scored in OT of Game 6 for the Philadelphia Flyers to eliminate Toronto on May 4, 2004 — a stretch of 18 years, 11 months and 28 days.
After the home side had a number of terrific looks on two power plays inside a ready-to-erupt rink, the Panthers struck when Cousins scored his first on a rebound at 9:25 of the opening period.
Bobrovsky made a couple huge saves off Auston Matthews on a Leafs power play in the second before Florida went up 2-0 at 7:58 when Bennett tipped a point shot past Samsonov that initially hit the stick of Knies.
The Toronto rookie made amends 11 seconds later when he scored his first professional goal on a highlight-reel effort between his skates and with his back to Florida's goal after Bobrovsky made the initial save.
"Surreal feeling," said the 20-year-old Knies. "Especially in the playoffs in the home arena."
Schenn then rocked Tkachuk with a big hit in the neutral zone before Bunting, who was suspended three games in the first round and made a healthy scratch for another, scored his first at 14:51 following an inch-perfect pass from Calle Jarnkrok.
Toronto kept up the physical play from the blue line when Morgan Rielly rocked Eric Stall and McCabe thumped Duclair.
But the latter got the last laugh when he sprung Verhaeghe shortly thereafter to put the Panthers up 3-2.
"They did to us what they did a lot to Boston in terms of getting us stopped coming out of our zone and turning on those plays quickly," Keefe said. "Before you know it, it's coming at your net.
"They do a tremendous job of that."
The Leafs will need to find an answer.
Apart from scoring the OT goal that gave the Leafs their first series win in 19 years, the Toronto captain and his wife recently welcome their third child, a daughter named Rae.
"An absolute whirlwind for him," Toronto centre Ryan O'Reilly said of Tavares before the game.
MAURICE LOOKS BACK
Maurice was behind the bench when the Carolina Hurricanes topped the Leafs in the 2002 Eastern Conference final.
"That was back in when you could get away with clutching and grabbing," he said. "We were really good at it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press