‘We’ve turned the page’: Maple Leafs can’t let their guard down against a thriving Florida Panthers squad
Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
By Steven Ellis1 month ago
This is unchartered territory. For you. For me. For the team. For the city.
Welcome to Round 2, Game Day 1. Something that literally has never been written in the history of The Leafs Nation. Toronto will host a second-round playoff game for the first time since 2004, back when most of the Leafs lineup were just out of house league.
We’re just not used to it.
But for everyone involved, it is – and needs to be – business as usual. The first round was fun, but it’s only going to get harder from here. If the Leafs are going to contend for the Stanley Cup, they can’t have many off nights and get lost in the limelight.
The Florida Panthers went the distance against the Boston Bruins, finishing things off on Sunday night. So there was little turnaround for the 2022 Presidents’ Trophy winners, while the Leafs had a slightly longer break and a shorter series. The Leafs also only trailed after Game 1, meaning they were in control for the majority of the series. Florida, meanwhile, has been playing must-win hockey for over a month after just squeaking in through a wild-card spot.
Midway through the season, the Panthers were in the bottom 10 of the league and well out of the playoff picture. They qualified for the playoffs during the final week of the regular season, and then found themselves down 3-1 to Boston, who posted the greatest regular season in NHL history. Somehow, they found the power to fight through and win Game 7, giving them a massive momentum boost heading into the series against Toronto.
So while the Leafs are riding their own high, they’re not alone.
“You got a team coming in riding high from a Game 7,” coach Sheldon Keefe told the media Tuesday morning. “When you look at it, historically speaking, these games tend to favour those teams.”
Two teams riding on house money. You’ve gotta love it. Both teams understand how hard it is to win when the stakes get high. The Panthers were swept by Tampa a year ago after registering the franchise’s best season ever. They then fell well below expectations during the regular season, forcing them to play like their lives depended on making the playoffs down the line. Toronto, meanwhile, didn’t have to deal with anywhere near the same level of adversity this year.
But they did manage to exercise their demons for the first time since 2004. That a lone is huge.
“I think we’ve turned the page really good,” Ryan O’Reilly said. “Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work left.”
There’s genuine hope that the Leafs can put together a long run this spring. That was as coherent of a first-round effort as we’ve seen from the Leafs, and the results paid off. They ended one of the best runs we’ve seen in the salary cap era in style. It wasn’t flawless by any means, but the group rallied together.
“I saw our group come together quickly and become as close a group as we’ve had here,” Keefe said.
And while the regular season felt like an eternity ago, it’s promising that the Leafs went 3-0-1 against the Panthers this year. This is a whole other challenge, though. It’s one thing to win the first round, but now you have to calm the nerves and stick to your game plan. The winner will be one step closer to qualifying for the Stanley Cup final. But right now, it needs to remain status quo. No making mistakes, no giving the other team an edge.
Honestly, Michael Bunting said it best: “The job’s not done.”
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