TORONTO — The Maple Leafs are back under pressure — and under the microscope.
Having finally won a playoff series for the first time in 19 years when John Tavares banked in the Game 6 overtime clincher to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning and spark wild celebrations across a tortured fan base, Toronto now finds itself down 0-2 to the underdog Florida Panthers in the second round following consecutive home losses.
What a difference seven days can make.
The Leafs certainly aren’t right back where they started — the sense of relief after getting past the Lightning is difficult to quantify — but a sputtering start to the Panthers matchup has them in a deep hole.
“The challenge is the challenge,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said before the team flew south ahead of Sunday’s Game 3. “But the group feels good and remains confident and optimistic. Excited to get out on the road. It’s a place that we’ve developed some confidence. But it doesn’t make it any easier.
“The puck will drop and then the game will be hard and competitive.”
Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to Florida in the opener saw the Leafs unable to match the desperation of an opponent coming off a stunning Game 7 upset of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins after trailing that series 3-1.
Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky started to show glimpses of the form that secured him two Vezina Trophy nods earlier in his career, and was even better in Game 2 as he stymied the Leafs following the home side’s flying start on the way to building an early 2-0 lead.
“We don’t want to be down two, but it’s out of our control,” said Toronto forward Ryan O’Reilly, who won the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2019 with the St. Louis Blues. “Everyone’s turned the page pretty good. There’s a good feeling in this room.
“A lot of hockey left to be played.”
Leafs winger Mitch Marner said the message is to stay the course for a high-octane offence that’s combined for just eight goals over its last four games.
“We’re getting our looks, we’re getting our chances,” he said. “Eventually we’re gonna get the result.”
Toronto has played its best hockey on the road in these playoffs — much like the rest of the league — going a perfect 3-0 with a trio of OT triumphs in the Tampa series against a 1-4 mark through five outings at Scotiabank Arena.
Keefe said part of the reason is the Leafs didn’t make the careless mistakes in tough moments last round away from home the way they did in Games 1 and 2 against Florida.
And then there’s everything outside the actual on-ice action.
“Being on the road this time of year is simpler,” Keefe said. “When you leave the arena on the road, you’re with your teammates, you’re back to the hotel, you’re resting. It’s a very controlled environment.”
Teams that trail a best-of-seven series 0-2 are just 55-343 all-time (13.8 per cent), while teams that lose the first two games at home are 21-85 (19.8 per cent).
Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn, who won the Cup with Tampa in 2020 and 2021, said a champion’s path is never clear.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a team in the history of the NHL who’s not gone through the playoffs and had great runs without going through adversity,” he said. “That could be dealing with injuries, that could be being down in series. I’ve never experienced or seen a playoffs that are totally smooth sailing.
“If you get through the adversity and you pull through it, it does make you better in the end, and it makes you stronger. It’s just how you respond to it.”
KNIES OUT, EYES ON BENNETT
Panthers centre Sam Bennett went unpunished for his takedown of Matthew Knies in Game 2 that knocked the Toronto rookie out of the series with a concussion.
The bruising, no-nonsense Schenn was asked what an appropriate physical response would be in Game 3.
“Well, we’ll see what the response is,” he said. “It’s one of those plays I didn’t catch in the heat of the moment … we’ll just wait and see how things go (Sunday).”
“We’re aware of what happened,” Schenn added. “We’ll just focus on the next one and try not to dwell on that.”
PANTHERS ON THE PROWL
Florida’s victory in Game 2 gave the team a franchise-record fifth straight playoff win.
The Panthers went 1-2 at FLA Live Arena against Boston in the first round.
Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov wasn’t made available to the media following a practice where he showed more emotion than normal.
The Russian smashed his stick against the post at one point Saturday, and appeared to be given a timeout on the bench to calm down.
Samsonov also swore when speaking to reporters after Thursday’s loss when asked about Bobovsky’s strong play, replying bluntly: “I don’t give a (expletive).”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press