SUNRISE, Fla. — What happens when you label a game a “must win” and don’t?
Where does it leave a team that throws around buzzwords like urgency and desperation for two days, yet displays less of it than their opposition?
What happens when you allot $40.5 million — nearly half your payroll — to four dynamic offensive stars, and they combine for zero goals in the first three games of a playoff series?
Well, you fall behind 0-3 to a harder-working, more inspired hockey team and risk swiftly skating out of a second round that it took you forever to taste.
A weekend ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs and their nation celebrated the most joyous victory of a generation. Maybe two.
Fans mobbed downtown and chanted “We! Want! Flo-ri-da!” at the top of their lungs, preferring to avoid the top-seed Boston Bruins in the next stop in the bracket.
After Sam Reinhart blew through the Maple Leafs’ defence in overtime, gathered a puck and jammed it through backup goalie Joseph Woll’s five-hole on an uncontested wraparound, sealing a 3-2 comeback victory and pushing the Leafs to cliff’s edge, Florida Panthers fans savoured the irony.
“We! Want! Flo-rid-a!” they sang in with smirking irony as they filed out of FLA Live Arena, 60 minutes away from Round 3.
Maybe this is all one big troll job.
Maybe the ghosts were never vanquished. Maybe they just gave the Leafs one more win than usual.
Because when you step back and examine the Maple Leafs’ 4-5 post-season — which features all of one regulation win and benefitted from some overdue good bounces in the Tampa series — it’s difficult to wonder how much progress will have really been made here, should the Leafs fail to make this best-of-seven interesting.
“You gotta start with one and give yourself a chance,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Obviously, they’re in full control here. It’s on us now to make it uncomfortable for them and not go away. We still have a tremendous amount of belief in our group.”
Well, the Panthers have mounted comeback wins in consecutive games. Their stars have shone. Their goaltending has been fantastic. Their discipline has been reined in. And their physical play has won them puck battles galore and forced turnovers by a Leafs team that is showing cracks as the pressure escalates.
The Maple Leafs, a roster built to outscore, have not potted more than two goals in five consecutive games. There is plenty of chatter about “digging in,” yet the Cats are the ones digging.
Florida had 14 takeaways to the Maple Leafs’ three in Game 3. One side would like the puck, please; the other demands it.
Sunday’s loss marked the Leafs’ first three-game skid since Oct. 30, and their best players are simply not providing enough.
The way the big guns blamed crummy luck sounded eerily reminiscent of the Montreal series or the Columbus series or….
“A couple posts. Stuff’s just not falling, but just can’t get discouraged. Gotta keep pushing. Keep putting our work before everything else and just believe and have faith in each other that we’re going to break through,” Matthews said. “It’s do-or-die now.”
And later: “Sometimes it goes in. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Added Marner: “I don’t think we can get frustrated. We just have to stick to our abilities. Once you get frustrated, things don’t go well for you at all.
“We’ve had our looks. Just hasn’t gone for us.”
Not one of Tavares, Matthews or Marner said anything to the effect of “I need to play better” in that sullen visitors’ room after Game 3.
Keefe refuses to point a finger at the top of his lineup.
“It’s a team game, and we need everybody to find a way to break through here,” the coach said.
The old narrative is in grave danger of becoming new again.
Questions about character and heart and cap structure and the futures of the general manager, the head coach, and the star-studded core will all bubble up over the next 48 hours.
“I mean, it sucks,” Marner said.
“But gotta forget about it quickly. Be pissed off. Now it’s do or die.”
Maybe it already was.
Fox’s Fast 5
“I thought Woll was excellent. He was great. Unsurprised,” Keefe said.
“He’s ready for this.”
With no update immediately given on Samsonov’s health, Woll might be in the pipes with Toronto’s season on the line Wednesday.
Dubas walked over to third-string goalie Matt Murray in the pressbox when Samsonov went down, and Murray hustled down to the room to get ready in case of emergency.
“Matt Murray is cleared. He’s healthy,” Keefe said.
Yes, but he hasn’t played a hockey game since April 2.
• Mildly surprised to see Matthew Knies travelling with the Leafs so soon after suffering a concussion in Game 2.
“Matty’s doing great,” billet dad John Tavares says. “He’s doing better every day, which is good to see. He’s played well since coming in here considering his age and circumstances. Obviously hate seeing him be out, but he’s doing much, much better and continues to progress.”
• Radko Gudas is 98 per cent testosterone and a year-round beard guy. He says he started shaving in Grade 6.
“There are some guys who are stumbling, obviously. That’s to be expected,” says Gudas, half man, half chin hair.
“Last two, three weeks I haven’t been able to touch it, so it’s getting out of control, I would say. Guys with a two-millimetre beard are itching, and I’m like, ‘C’mon, this is nothing.’ Great part of the playoffs.
“I’m a big fan of this time of year.”
Hey, Paul Maurice, why don’t you grow one, too?
“It’s white. Like, all white,” he says. “It’s ugly. I’m not part of that. I think there should be a separation between players and coaches. And that is definitely not something I want to be part of.
“I’d need a seven-month playoff run for it to fill in enough, and there’d still be some gaps.”
• Reinhart doesn’t wear a letter, but Maurice leans on him because he has such a good read of the room and a keen handle on what’s happening on the ice. The coach figures the 27-year-old is smart enough to be a GM.
“I’ll talk to Sam sometimes to find out what happened in the game… and he’s right.” Maurice says. “Ronnie Francis was like that.”
• Four NHL teams have rallied from a 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series: The 1942 Maple Leafs vs. Red Wings in Stanley Cup Final, the 1975 Islanders vs. Penguins in Stanley Cup quarterfinals, the 2010 Flyers vs. Bruins in Eastern Conference semifinals, and the 2014 Kings vs. Sharks in Western Conference first round.