Maple Leafs tumble out of playoffs with overtime loss to Panthers

Maple Leafs tumble out of playoffs with overtime loss to Panthers

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It’s over.

The Florida Panthers took down the Maple Leafs in five games, earning a 3-2 overtime win at the Scotiabank Arena and ending the Leafs’ Stanley Cup championship dream.

“It’s going to take time for the sting of this series to wear off,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “This is a missed opportunity for our group.

“I think we had a good enough team to win the Stanley Cup. There were eight teams left, and seven were going to be disappointed. We’re one of those teams that are disappointed.”

The Leafs gave themselves a chance Friday, rallying from a 2-0 deficit. Morgan Rielly scored in the second period, and fans felt he was robbed a goal in the third on a video review.

“It is what it is,” a dejected Rielly said. “We’ll take some time to reflect. It’s tough to describe (my emotions). You’re disappointed. You feel for your teammates. It’ll take some time to get over this.”

Rookie Joseph Woll held the fort while the Leafs attacked the Panthers relentlessly looking for the equalizer. William Nylander took a pass from John Tavares, streamed down the wing with the speed he is known for and put a snapshot past Sergei Bobrovsky at 15:33 of the third period to force overtime.

But Nick Cousins scored on a rush — the 44th shot on Woll — with 4:28 to go in the first extra period to subdue the Leafs and get everyone to the handshake line.

“It’s a tough one,” Tavares said. “The guys battled extremely hard. The belief never wavered. It’s hard to believe it’s over.”

The Panthers, the last team in the Eastern Conference to clinch a berth in the playoffs and owners of the 18th-best record during the regular season, will play the Carolina Hurricanes to see which team won’t raise the Prince of Wales trophy when they win it.

“We lost the series in the first three games,” Keefe said. “We had a chance to win Games 1, 2 and 3. We didn’t capitalize on our chances. The margin for error was none. That stings. But credit to the Florida Panthers.”

And the big question for the Leafs is: Now what?

It has been 56 years and counting since the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup, the longest drought in the league. Saturday will mark 20,465 days since George Armstrong lifted the chalice. If the regular season is where players make their money but the playoffs are where they make their name, what is the hockey world to think of the Leafs’ best-paid players.

They were collectively terrific in the first round, but came up largely empty in the second round. Auston Matthews and Tavares didn’t score at all in the series, while Nylander scored twice and Mitch Marner once. A team built on offence managed just 10 goals over five games.

The Leafs finished with Woll in net, an impressive rookie who will get a long look at a full-time role next year, another bright spot in a season of bright spots that might be harder to see now.

Marner led the team in scoring, with a personal-high 99-point season built in part on a 23-game points-streak, tied for the 18thg-longest in league history and the third-longest by an active player. Matthews stepped back in terms of offence, in part due to injuries, but still had his fifth 40-goal season. Nylander had his first 40-goal season, while Tavares continued at a remarkable point-a-game pace while surpassing his 1,000th game.

Other highlights included Mark Giordano becoming the NHL’s all-time leader in shots blocked.

And the Leafs won a round, taking down Tampa Bay in six games, the franchise’s first playoff series win in 19 years.

But they could only win one game in the second round, avoiding a sweep in a seven-game series for the first time since 1979.

So while the team and its fan base lick their wounds, it feels like all the good will and good news stories around the team — like Luke Schenn’s repatriation — matter not a whit. Schenn and fellow trade-deadline additions Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari and Erik Gustafsson are all headed to free agency. Jake McCabe and Sam Lafferty remain under contract for next year.

The trades were costly from the perspective of the Leafs’ future. They are without their 2023 first-round pick, two 2023 third-round picks and a 2024 second-round pick, a 2025 first-round pick that is top 10 protected, and a 2026 second-round pick.

They also moved some useful players, like Rasmus Sandin and Pierre Engvall, to make room for the players that were supposed to add the grit needed for a long playoff run. They did pick up what has turned into the 28th pick this summer for Sandin.

Next year’s team could look very different with Alex Kerfoot, Justin Holl, David Kämpf, Michael Bunting, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Aston-Reese also heading for unrestricted free agency.

And there’s no guarantee than any or all of coach Sheldon Keefe, GM Kyle Dubas or president Brendan Shanahan will return.

Time is running out on team’s ability to trade its stars, if it should so choose, with no-movement clauses kicking in July 1 for Matthews and Marner and a limited no-trade clause for Nylander.

It’s hard to see what direction the Leafs are going.

“We’re proud of our season,” Rielly said. “I love these guys. I don’t want anything to change.”

Grim first

Things got off to a grim start with the Leafs trailing 2-0 after the first period and Florida showing an early killer instinct. The Panthers attacked Woll early — they thought they were too easy on the rookie goalie in Game 4 — and they were rewarded. An early power play helped the Panthers’ cause as Aaron Ekblad one-timied a pass for a 1-0 lead with five seconds left in a high-sticking call to McCabe. The Panthers had the lead and a 9-2 advantage in shots.

The Leafs started skating, got a couple of power plays of their own and owned most of the rest of the period. They pounded out shots — they finished the period up 13-12 — but couldn’t get a goal. Then Carter Verhaeghe scored late, off a rush — another one-timer that beat Woll — to give Florida a 2-0 lead and take some of the air out of an amped-up Scotiabank Arena crowd.

Angry second

The Leafs regained their composure in the second period, getting the only goal, but they came away feeling robbed that they didn’t get two. Rielly was at the heart of both. His shot from the point through traffic on a terrific shift by the fourth line cut the Panthers lead in half. Rielly thought he tied the game — and so did the rest of the building — with 2:49 to go in the second period. It was a strong second-effort drive to the net that Bobrovsky covered up quickly. The call on the ice was no goal, and it was unclear through the early replays if the puck had truly crossed the line.

Eventually, as the referees huddled by the timekeeper, a replay showed the puck clearly over the line. The crowd erupted in joy.

That quickly turned to anger when the officials declined to overturn the call, saying the whistle had been blown on the play. Bottles and other paraphernalia cascaded down with the boos and chants of “Refs suck.”

The league explained the call: “The referee deemed the play dead prior to the puck crossing the Florida line. The call was made in accordance to Rule 78.5 (xii), which states apparent goals shall be disallowed ‘when the referee deems the play has been stopped, even if he had not physically had the opportunity to stop play by blowing his whistle.’ ”

Close calls

The playoffs have been about who gets the breaks. Game 2 was the most baffling, with the Leafs’ biggest stars giving away the puck to lead to two Florida goals. Game 3 came down to luck, a puck off the rear end of Verhaeghe leading to the goal that forced overtime, another Florida win. And Game 4 came to a bounce going the Leafs way, a puck redirected off the skate of an official to an open Nylander and his backhander going off the post to Bobrovsky’s back and caroming into the net in the Leafs’ 2-1 win.

Kevin McGran is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran

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