Tonight’s game evoked a familiar feeling after many Leaf playoff games over the past seven seasons: disbelief. Disbelief that a hockey team could play so well, yet so stupidly at the same time. Disbelief that a team could have a reliable goaltender for eight months who suddenly turns into a sieve when things seem under control. Disbelief that despite having one of the best forward groups in the league, none can score on a goalie who wasn’t even his team’s starter to being in the playoffs. I naively thought this feeling disappeared after Toronto got past Tampa in game one. I thought this iteration of the Leafs would not only win the games they are supposed to but even steal a couple in the process. How fucking stupid was I? The Leafs’ game two loss against Florida brought back painful memories of past Leaf playoff failures where nothing went their way. But it also exemplified that despite how far this team has come, they can still shoot themselves in the foot.
I didn’t write a recap after game one of this series because I had little to say. The Leafs played a solid game, nothing more, nothing less. I didn’t think they were fantastic, but they played well enough to win despite a few untimely mistakes. I was confident that Toronto would come out buzzing to start game two and take back control of this series. That’s exactly what they did. The Leafs had 12 of the first 15 shots to start the game and were all over the puck, like how Cabbie is all over my TV screen promoting his shitty bets. The first Leaf goal came after some excellent puck hunting by Morgan Riely, who pinched in to keep the play alive. Then it was some typical fourth-line offence. Get it to the point and crowd the front of the net. It worked as the puck bounced Alex Kerfoot’s way, and the Leafs got what their fiery opening few minutes deserved. Then, the Panthers took their first of only three infractions (it should have been at least double that), and the Leafs broke down the horrendous shaky penalty kill to double their lead. It was a miracle for Florida that Toronto’s power play did not find a way to score in game one, so no surprise the Leafs found gold in game two.
Things can change quickly in playoff games, and the Panthers’ first goal was a great example.
It took them fifteen seconds to go from a faceoff in their zone to the puck ending up in the Leafs’ net. It’s hard to analyze a play like this other than just throwing your hands up. Tavares falls down, which means Liljegren’s reversal goes straight to Sam Reinhart, and Giordano gets beat by his man because he gave Liljegren an option on the boards. I have a nitpick here with Samsonov, who turns his head before the puck has even touched Tavares’s stick and is lost when it does eventually come in front. Nonetheless, the Leafs finished the first with a one-goal lead and deserved it. There was nothing to be worried about.
That is until the second period started, and it became clear that Matthew Knies was missing on the Leaf bench. Immediately, my mind went back to this play late in the first.
There was no call on the play, which is a fucking joke if you couldn’t tell. I am pretty sure the puck was already in the Leafs’ zone while Sam Bennett was trying out a new finisher move on Knies’s head. This after Matthew Tkachuk had already been penalized for jumping two feet off the ice to try and hit Knies, elbowing him instead. The initial signs are not encouraging for Knies, and I would be shocked if he plays in game three. However, it’s great to know that the referees are allowing full-body takedowns in the NHL now. I am sure they will be consistent on that.
The second period only went from bad to worse for the Leafs. It started with a comedy of errors on the tying goal.
Jake McCabe initially fans on his pass attempt, then shovels it up to Nylander, who is flat-footed on the boards. Nylander tries to do way too much from that point and falls down. Alexanders Barkov then throws a half-wrister-half-saucer pass shot on net, and it fools Samsonov. Saying it fools Samsonov is honestly giving Samsonov too much credit. That is an unacceptable goal to give up on your glove hand, and I am at the point where an honest discussion should be had about who should start game three for the Leafs. Samsonov’s game six performance against Tampa will not be forgotten ever, but other than that, he has looked nervous and jumpy. When Samsonov is at his best, he is aggressive but calculating. Right now, he seems to be throwing himself at the puck and hoping for the best. Even the most straightforward shots, like Barkov’s, are causing him to overthink. He seems off, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is hurt. In a similar position, down 2-0 last round, the New Jersey Devils went to Akira Schmid, a goalie with just 18 NHL starts. Schmid won four of the next five games and had two shutouts. Joseph Woll’s situation is not dissimilar. I would start Samsonov in game three but on an extremely short leash.
The very next shift after Barkov’s goal, Florida took the lead in what was one of the most embarrassing sequences by two superstars I’ve seen in quite a while.
Mitch Marner has a chance to skate the puck out easily. Instead, he drops it to his good ol’ buddy Auston Matthews who has a Panthers behind and in front of him. Matthews decides his best course of action is to turn into Pavel Barber and try to flick the puck over/past Eetu Luostarinen, which *shockingly* doesn’t work. Then Marner is nowhere to be found on the backcheck, and his man, Gustav Forsling, is left wide open to finish it. Toronto’s three best players all make boneheaded plays that should be reserved for games against the Coyotes in November at 47 seconds apart, and the Leafs are down a goal just like that.
The rest of the game can be described as the Leafs throwing punch after punch at the Panthers, and it feeling like Bobrovsky was Nate Diaz absolutely eating every punch and not getting knocked back one bit. There was this chance created by Nylander that I have no idea how Tavares missed
In the third, Nylander created another excellent chance for Tavares. Again, he missed.
Then Willy tried to do it himself, and Bobrovsky also made an incredible save on that. Toronto continuously did whatever they wanted with the puck in the third period, and the Panthers had no answer, but their goalie did—every time.
If I were to pick one game to describe how the Leafs have recently lost so often in the playoffs, this would be it. Every time I looked at the clock, it seemed there was less time left than there should have been. But that’s the thing. It didn’t matter how much time was left. The Leafs were never going to score. Hockey can be a funny yet infuriating game sometimes. Realistically, the playoffs are about which team limits their mistakes the most but also takes advantage of the ones the other team commits. Toronto limited its mistakes against Tampa, a major reason they won. Even tonight, the home team didn’t make that many mistakes, but when they did, the Panthers capitalized on those errors. Unsurprisingly, Florida has been on the plus side of this battle for the entire playoffs.
I know its easy to criticize the Leafs four best players after a game like that, especially with how bad those second and third goals were. But I am going to try to avoid piling on. Nylander could have easily had two or three points tonight, and Tavares seems snakebitten since he broke the curse in game six. Matthews and Marner were great in the first, and easily could have been the ones to tie the game late. It just did not go their way.
My confidence is still high that the Leafs will win this series. The road teams have been historically good in these playoffs, and Toronto themselves were three and one in Tampa. They have been the better team in both games, and if Sergei Bobrovsky keeps this up, then I am not sure what to do.
Are the Leafs playing flawless hockey? No. I’ve made that clear. But this sport is as random as any of them, and all you can do is put yourself in a position for success. Toronto is doing that. This team has bounced back repeatedly this season, and I no longer want to doubt them. So panic button be damned, I said Leafs in 7 before the series, and I am sticking with that.
I’ll see you Sunday. Go, Leafs Go.