TORONTO — Just five days after overcoming their greatest institutional challenge, the Toronto Maple Leafs are once again in a conundrum of their own making, squandering a two-goal lead on home ice to fall behind the upstart Florida Panthers 2-0 in their second-round series.
For a moment, this year felt different for the Maple Leafs after John Tavares scored the Goal Heard Around the 905 on Saturday and perhaps it will feel different again if the Maple Leafs complete the statistically improbable task of winning four of their next five games.
There’s no reason why Toronto should’ve sunk into this seemingly bottomless chasm, not after taking a 2-0 lead against the Panthers Thursday evening.
Alexander Kerfoot opened the scoring two minutes and twenty seconds into the contest, drew a penalty, then Ryan O’Reilly notched an insurance goal — in theory, anyways. Five minutes into Game 2, the Maple Leafs seemed bound to restore the nature of a series that could be won in the margins, despite the home team’s superior depth and talent.
And then it all went to hell.
Anton Lundell scored after Timothy Liljegren lost a key puck battle behind the net to Sam Reinhart, Tavares wiped out on the close-out attempt and it was still 2-1 Maple Leafs. Okay, so it wasn’t a perfect first period but few playoff frames are flawless. It’s the very nature of the postseason for random aberrations to occur.
But in a 66-second span in the second period, the Maple Leafs wasted all the good will afforded from overcoming six consecutive first-round exits. Matthew Knies, who had emerged as one of the Maple Leafs’ best players as a 20-year-old rookie, was ruled out for the duration of the game after getting driven into the boards, then body-slammed by Panthers forward Sam Bennett.
Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov then immediately took advantage of a ghastly turnover from William Nylander. Anthony Duclair scooped up the loose puck when Nylander fell and found Barkov, who then wired a wrist shot past Ilya Samsonov 19 seconds into the second frame.
OK, so the Maple Leafs blew a two-goal lead, these things can happen in the playoffs. During the time you needed to justify that things would eventually work in Toronto’s favour, Gustav Forling put that notion to rest when Auston Matthews lost the puck skating out of his own zone. The Panthers ran a variation of a three-man weave and Matthew Tkachuk, the Game 1 hero, found a wide-open Forsling for what stood as the game-winner.
Chucky finds Gus and oh myyyyyyy 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/Vf709ur4kv
“Disappointing. Baffling,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe offered in a terse post-game media availability. “We didn’t make those mistakes one time in the last series.”
Toronto didn’t roll over and die but the ferocious home crowd was tamed to whispers, the sounds of 20,000 fans all considering the perilous consequences of a 2-0 deficit, or perhaps silently fuming at the prospect of blowing a two-goal lead after two turnovers from two of the team’s four best players.
Michael Bunting was promoted to the first line with Matthews and Mitch Marner and once considered a liability to take momentum-killing penalties, the tenacious forward was slashed badly and drew a penalty without complaint — a play that Keefe likened to one Matthews drew a two-game suspension for in the 2022 Heritage Classic.
Toronto’s nominal top line generated 13 unblocked shot attempts against four at 5-on-5 but on a night like this, no one wants to dip into the charts. It’s all academic, it doesn’t matter. Matthews and Nylander threw the kitchen sink at Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and he shut the door time after time.
Bobrovsky saved two goals above expected but it may as well have been infinity. A two-time Vezina winner who didn’t enter the playoffs as the Panthers’ starter, the 34-year-old reverted back to his all-world form and constantly stymied a relentless Maple Leafs attack in the second period. You could cut a highlight reel of the stops he made against Nylander, Tavares and Matthews alone, while Marner was a constant playmaker, finding passing lanes where space wasn’t apparent.
Here's a sampling of some of Bobrovsky's biggest saves:
Nylander comes across and deflects the shot pic.twitter.com/cWJzzT1XZR
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 5, 2023
Nylander gets by two Panthers then takes the puck to Bobrovsky pic.twitter.com/v510GGxMmw
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 5, 2023
If you take a bird’s-eye view of the series, one that doesn’t center all the events of the opening two games around the relational qualities to the Maple Leafs, you could be inclined to call Thursday’s contest the Sergei Bobrovsky Game.
“I think you need your goaltender to win you a game every series, and he did that tonight,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said.
“Yeah, he played awesome,” Tkachuk said of his goalie. “He’s been driving it for us ever since he’s come back. He deserves it. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen — Barkov is probably second. Bob, he grinds and just continues to work on his game and takes care of himself like I’ve never seen somebody do. He deserves it, he’s been a leader for us since he’s come back, so we’re very lucky to have him.”
Samsonov, for what it’s worth, wasn’t impressed.
“I don’t give a f—. Doesn’t matter to me. I am doing my work, he is doing his work.”
As for Knies, the Maple Leafs may be in deep trouble after Keefe revealed that he didn’t receive a positive update about the 20-year-old. Knies was part of Toronto’s starting lineup alongside O’Reilly and Noel Acciari and his speed, size and willingness to embrace the physical side of the game was a major reason why he was one of Toronto’s top forwards. You could probably draw a line of demarcation from Knies’ injury as the first indicator of the Maple Leafs’ collapse.
Bennett is now public enemy number one in Toronto, two nights after his skill and scoring touch doomed his hometown Maple Leafs. All historical precedents aside, it seems likely Bennett will remain a crucial part of this series.
“I do not think he will hear from player safety on that, no,” Tkachuk said post-game with a dismissive smirk.
These aren’t the same old Maple Leafs, at least not based on roster construction. They had apparently cleared the hurdles, defeating the three-time defending conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. They avoided the 65-win Boston Bruins and instead drew a divisional rival that they finished 19 points above during the regular season.
It was all good just a week ago and now the Maple Leafs are in a nearly insurmountable position. You could chalk it up to the Panthers’ superior goaltending but the Maple Leafs have nowhere to hide and no one else to blame.