Maple Leafs fall apart in the second period, learn playoff fate in 5-2 loss to Panthers

Photo credit:Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Joseph Zita
10 days ago
For the fourth and final time this regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers took on one another in Sunrise, Florida, on the third-last night of the season, with both teams eyeing the 2024 playoffs that are right around the corner.

First period:

When the puck dropped for the start of the Maple Leafs – Panthers game, it was unknown who Toronto’s first-round opponent would be. With Boston holding the first spot in the division with 109 points, one point ahead of Florida, who entered last night with 108 points, a win from the Maple Leafs over the Panthers would confirm a Toronto – Florida first-round series. However, a Florida win or overtime/shootout loss and a Boston loss in any fashion would set up a Toronto – Boston first-round series.
Once the game got underway in the Sunshine State, it didn’t take long for both teams to greet each other. Despite these two teams playing each other just two weeks ago, the physicality was brought early in this contest, and multiple scrums ensued throughout the period during play and after whistles. But before things got going between the two sides physicality-wise, the Maple Leafs were rewarded with an early power play after Gustav Forsling was sent to the penalty box for cross-checking Tyler Bertuzzi following a near-scoring chance from the top line. Despite their recent struggles on the man advantage, it didn’t take the top unit too long to find the back of the net.
Roughly 20 seconds in, a shot from Mitch Marner fooled Anthony Stolarz from distance and beat him for Marner’s 27th goal of the season, extending his point streak to six games since returning from his injury.
After the opening goal, the scrums started to happen, delaying the period from constant whistles between the two sides getting in each other’s faces. Things began to boil over when Matthew Tkachuk went after John Tavares near the benches, and because Simon Benoit jumped in, defending his captain, he was slapped with a penalty, giving the home side a free power play. Fortunately, the Maple Leafs penalty kill didn’t give them much, keeping them off the scoreboard and holding their lead.
With the penalty killed, Toronto’s third line went to work in the offensive zone, thanks to great work from Pontus Holmberg on the forecheck and the net front screen, allowing Noah Gregor to fire a shot from distance that beat Stolarz for the 2-0 lead.
Toronto was given another power play just over the halfway point in the period when Evan Rodrigues was whistled for holding Nick Robertson. However, they couldn’t capitalize on their second opportunity, keeping the score 2-0 as the period progressed toward the final few minutes.
Remember when Benoit got the extra penalty for jumping in during the Tavares-Tkachuk scrum? Well, during a scrum between McCabe and Rodrigues, Tkachuk jumped in and gave his team a power play. Luckily, the penalty kill came up huge for their team again, keeping the Panthers off the scoreboard and not giving them much to work with on the man advantage. Toronto continued generating chances on Stolarz, including a couple from the top line, with Matthews hungry for goal number 70.
Toronto entered the first intermission up 2-0 and outshooting Florida 14-6.

Second period:

The first 20 minutes were the best the Maple Leafs could’ve asked for. They outplayed the Panthers in their arena and matched their physicality when Florida attempted to challenge them. They got two goals, one on the power play and one at five-on-five, from Marner and Gregor, but as soon as the puck dropped for the middle period, the momentum quickly shifted. From start to finish, the Florida Panthers dominated the Toronto Maple Leafs. Whether you’re convinced Toronto wasn’t trying because this game meant nothing to them, it doesn’t change the fact that they played a solid first period and followed it up with a sluggish second period.
The Panthers got on the board almost immediately when former Marlie Carter Verhaeghe cut Toronto’s lead in half just 28 seconds in, giving his team some life and some energy to the Panthers fans in attendance. Although the home side was stuck on one goal for half the period, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. They got out to a lopsided shot advantage fast and smothered Toronto in their zone, forcing them to defend shift after shift.
The Maple Leafs somehow weathered the storm and kept their one-goal lead, but as soon as the 10-minute mark hit in the period, the floodgates opened for Florida. Within 3:10 on the clock, Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart, and Brandon Montour all scored, jumping out to a 4-2 lead within the blink of an eye after Toronto once held a 2-0 lead entering the period. It wasn’t a pretty period at all. Toronto took three penalties, allowed four consecutive goals, and were outshot 29-4. Let me say that again. 29-4! Florida had the same amount of goals as Toronto had shots that period. And although Toronto was without two of their top-nine forwards, that effort in the middle frame was inexcusable against a potential playoff opponent.
Toronto entered the second intermission down 4-2 and outshot 35-18.

Third period:

Down by two goals heading into the third period, Toronto, win or lose, needed to put together a better effort after getting embarrassed in the middle frame. At this point in the game, a win from Florida or an overtime/shootout loss would leapfrog them over Boston in the standings, with Boston losing to Ottawa during the third period.
The third period was slightly better for Toronto. They managed to outshoot the Panthers 8-7 but had trouble solving Stolarz after beating him twice in roughly eight minutes back in the first frame. Florida did a much better job defending the front of their net in the final 40 minutes, smothering any Maple Leaf player near the blue paint, especially Auston Matthews, who was visibly trying hard to score his 70th goal last night. With the power plays 6-2 in favour of the Panthers under five minutes into the period, the Maple Leafs were given three of their own in the final 15 minutes, giving them a chance to make things interesting and maybe a chance for Matthews to find the back of the net after a couple of great looks earlier in the game.
The chances kept coming for the 69-goal man, including another post, but the luck wasn’t on his side last night as the Panthers kept him and his team off the scoresheet after their two goals earlier in the contest. With Joseph Woll pulled for the extra attacker, this was the last chance for a potential goal from Matthews, but instead, Sam Reinhart buried the empty netter for his 57th goal of the season – second of the night – taking the 5-2 lead with roughly two minutes to go.
Brandon Montour took a late high-sticking penalty on Matthews, giving Toronto one more shot with under a minute to go, but couldn’t accomplish it, losing their second last game of the season 5-2 to Florida and as the game was coming to an end, it was official, Ottawa defeated Boston, setting up a first-round series between the Maple Leafs and the Bruins for the first time since 2019.

Who stood out:

Honestly, last night was difficult to analyze, given a chunk of the game was played on special teams. Although Toronto’s penalty kill went 6-for-6, the Panthers’ momentum came from those power plays. After all those man advantages, they finally got on the board from the pressure they put on the Maple Leafs in the second period. Toronto struggled to defend Florida’s forecheck in round two last year, and that was the same story in the second period last night.
Two of Toronto’s pairings on the blue line didn’t look that great last night, but let’s talk about the one that did look good. The pairing of McCabe and Benoit continues to be a solid pair for this team, and with the playoffs this weekend, there should be no questioning that they should remain together for game one.
According to Moneypuck.com, they played 11:14 at five-on-five, the most of any pairing on Toronto, won the shot attempt battle 16-7, outshot the Panthers while they were on the ice 8-2, and generated an xGF% of 97.4%. They were also the only pairing to not be on the ice for a goal against. The Rielly-Lyubushkin pairing was outscored 3-0, and the Edmundson-Liljegren pairing was even 1-1.
You can catch the Toronto Maple Leafs’ next game tonight when they finish their regular season against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 pm ET/4:00 pm PT.

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