We’ve heard this one before.
Unstoppable force, immovable object. What happens when you pit a team that’s finally slayed two decades’ worth of playoff demons against a team fresh off carrying out one of the greatest upsets in Stanley Cup Playoffs history?
Welcome to Round 2, where the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers find themselves on a collision course fuelled by chaos and exceptional vibes.
But first, a look back. There’s no understanding what we’re about to watch without reflecting on what we just witnessed.
In one corner, the Maple Leafs, who punched their ticket after six straight years of miserable first-round exits, of sullen post-elimination press conferences. Getting over that mountain meant dispatching a team that’s come to be the class of the league over the past half-decade, a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that had won 11 of its past 12 post-season series and had lumped Toronto in with those 11 just a year ago.
And in the other, the Panthers, who embody the improbable. These Panthers, who won a Presidents’ Trophy and then opted for major off-season roster surgery, sending their leading scorer packing and bringing in a young lion. These Panthers, who endured a roller-coaster season, snuck into the playoffs as the clock wound down, and decided they might as well make history.
Oh, how they did. Clawing back from the brink of elimination twice, forcing a Game 7 no one thought possible, and dismantling a veteran Boston Bruins team that had just put together the best regular season the NHL has ever seen.
Emotionally, where will these Round 2 combatants be at when the puck drops on Game 1?
It’s the Maple Leafs, finally free of their first-round curse and being questioned for nearly a decade, versus the Panthers, already operating at maximum desperation, already doing what couldn’t be done, and looking like a train that can’t be halted.
Maple Leafs: 3-0-1
Maple Leafs X-Factor: Ilya Samsonov
Roll back the tape on Toronto’s Round 1 win, and you’ll see plenty of highlight-reel offensive performances, plenty of clutch displays from Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Ryan O’Reilly. But don’t get it twisted — the reason the Maple Leafs were able to finally break through and book that long-awaited ticket to the second round was the man in the cage, Ilya Samsonov.
For all that these Maple Leafs brought to the table over their recent history of failed playoff runs — dynamic skill, all-world offence, underrated defensive play — the one thing they’ve lacked throughout it all has been a goaltender who simply made the saves. Someone who might not contend for trophies, set records, steal games, but who’d simply make the key saves, in the key moments, to keep the team in it. To see the thing through.
This year, at long last, they have that missing piece.
Toronto doesn’t get by the Bolts without Samsonov playing some of his best hockey. There were injury worries and nervous starts and stiff tests against one of the best in the world, but in the end, Samsonov gave the Leafs what they needed. If they hope to keep these rare good times rolling, that must continue.
But the test doesn’t get any easier as Toronto shifts focus to Florida’s other resident NHL club. The Cats might not have Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point, but they just sent the best team in the league packing by stacking 10 goals on likely Vezina winner Linus Ullmark in Games 5 and 6, and then dropped another four on Jeremy Swayman in Game 7 — with their backs against the wall, no less, and their season on the line.
That the Panthers are here in Round 2 is evidence enough of their ability to put pucks in the net when it matters most. The Maple Leafs will have to hope Samsonov has something to say about that.
Panthers X-Factor: Matthew Tkachuk
Who else? Give all the flowers to Sergei Bobrovsky and Brandon Montour and Carter Verhaeghe, but if there’s one thing we learned about the Panthers in Round 1, it’s that they’re Matthew Tkachuk’s team.
It’s not just the fact that the marquee off-season acquisition came in and paced his new club with a career 40-goal, 109-point effort. It’s not that he’s matched the Leafs’ best scorers so far through these playoffs — Tkachuk’s 11 points have him level with Marner for the second-most among all playoff scorers, and his five goals leave him level with Matthews for fourth-most among all playoff snipers — it’s how Tkachuk built those totals.
An OT winner in Game 5, when the entire hockey world was already carving his Panthers’ tombstone. Fingerprints all over Game 6, another do-or-die test against the Boston behemoth, Tkachuk scoring to build leads, to restore ties, to push Boston off its perch and on to the Game 7 ledge.
And then the finale, another overtime, a chance at history on the line. And there’s Tkachuk, behind Boston’s net, fighting off three Bruins to keep hold of the puck, before dishing it to a mate and swinging around to the netfront — just in time to screen the ‘tender as Verhaeghe fired home the series clincher.
The former Flame’s impact was laced through every bit of Florida’s historic upset, his influence going far beyond the boxscore. Here comes another career-defining stage to make his presence known.
Key Stat: Toronto’s dangerous power play vs. Florida’s paltry penalty kill
If there’s an Achilles’ heel in Florida’s high-octane, breakneck approach to toppling giants, it’s the frequent trips to the penalty box.
The Panthers entered the post-season as the most penalized club in the playoff mix, having finished with the second-most penalty minutes per game league-wide, behind only the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators. Over their seven-game battle with Boston, that reputation held up. Florida averaged the fifth-most penalty minutes per game among the 16 post-season clubs in Round 1, and found themselves shorthanded a league-leading 27 times.
What’s worse? The Panthers penalty kill’s done a pretty lousy job of bailing them out.
The group finished second-worst among all playoff-bound clubs heading into the post-season, killing off just 76 per cent of their infractions in the regular season. They entered the playoffs having allowed the most man-advantage goals-against per game of any team in the mix. And in Round 1? More of the same. The Cats’ 1.57 power-play goals-against per game are the most of any post-season club to this point. Their 59.3 per cent effectiveness on the PK ranks third-last.
For a Maple Leafs side whose power play was the second-most lethal in the game during the regular season — bested only by the Edmonton Oilers’ historic man-advantage unit — this should be music to their ears. Toronto only has to look to the last game the Panthers played to see how the club’s penalty trouble almost undid them. After Florida built up a crucial 2-0 lead in that Game 7, they saw it erased by two Bruins power-play goals which pulled Boston back to level ground and allowed them to take a late lead, before the Panthers authored another highwire comeback.
The only issue is that Toronto’s power play has been anything but consistent so far in the post-season. After some early success in Games 1 and 2 of the Maple Leafs’ first-round series, the group largely came up empty-handed over the final four matches. A breakout in Game 4 earned Toronto a pair of man-advantage goals, but in Games 3, 5, and 6, the power play came up empty handed on multiple tries.
For the Maple Leafs, the task will be to get the most out of those units — the Panthers will be aggressive, will earn their fair share of trips to the box, and Toronto can make its path through Round 2 much easier by finding a way to punish that approach. On the other side, the mission for Florida will be to find the line between pushing Toronto to its limit, and leaving themselves open for special-teams counterpunches.
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
How the Maple Leafs win:
By playing without the fear of failure that’s plagued this group so often in the past.
The Leafs were at their best against the Lightning when they played patient and with poise. When they took a breath, trusted their elite skill, and made the plays they made all season. They were at their worst when they let the nerves, the weight of the moment, and the fear of making mistakes seep into their game.
But that should be out of the equation now. They’ve slayed the dragon, ended the streak, silenced all the questions about why they haven’t been able to get it done. Whether they win or lose in Round 2, Toronto will go into the off-season having made some semblance of progress in 2023. The rest is all playing with house money, seeing how far they can take it, trying to live up to even loftier goals.
If they lean into that mentality, into the belief they showed against the Bolts, and allow their all-world skill to run rampant, these Leafs can be dominant. Even after taking that long-awaited first-round step, Toronto hasn’t yet played its best hockey in these playoffs.
The curse is over — now’s the time.
How the Panthers win:
By not letting up. By doing what they just did to Boston three times — running them over with a relentless, unyielding belief in their potential to make history.
The Panthers are coming out of something brutal that took every bit of them. The Leafs have been basking in the glory of finally winning a round, have seen their city celebrate as if it’s won the Cup, and have had days to revel in their newfound success. In the eyes of these battle-tested Cats, Toronto should be ripe for the picking.
They’ll win, too, if they realize this is something of a perfect storm for Toronto. Had the Maple Leafs gotten Boston, they would’ve had another old ghost to exorcise, would’ve been the underdogs again, would’ve been able to lean on the same mentality they relied on in Tampa. But in Florida, Toronto gets a team that on paper seems beatable, though they have already proven to be far more desperate team that won’t go away. All told, precisely the type of team these Leafs have underperformed against in the past.
Florida wins if they come out flying, fuelled by what they just inflicted upon the league’s best. And if these Leafs do what they’ve done in the past — overthink, doubt, freeze up — the Panthers will run right through them.