‘We’ll be ready’: Maple Leafs must sharpen up fast for Bruins series

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss why the Toronto Maple Leafs may prefer a first-round matchup against the Boston Bruins over the Florida Panthers and whether Auston Matthews will play in the final game of the season as he chases 70 goals.

SUNRISE, FLA. — Turns out, they didn’t want Florida.

Not really. Not this time. Not this smoke.

Zooming out, however, Tuesday’s sloppy loss could end up being a sneaky win for the Toronto Maple Leafs — a team that would have been hard-pressed to match the Panthers’ visceral engagement, relentless checking, and superior goaltending over the course of a seven-game series.

So, as the Florida Panthers rallied something relentless and executed a convincing 5-2 home win to secure a regular-season Atlantic Division crown, their fans showered mock chants of “We! Want! Flo-ri-da!” upon the Leafs, now locked into a first-round grudge match against this core’s original rival, the Boston Bruins.

The irony is, they could’ve had Florida if they wanted them bad enough.

The third-seed Maple Leafs still had some say in their playoff opponent coming into Amerant Bank Arena for their penultimate regular-season date.

Had they beat Florida in regulation — an outcome that appeared possible as they built an early 2-0 lead via goals from John Tavares and Noah Gregor — they would’ve remained oceanside for a week, sunny strolls interrupted by Matthew Tkachuk facewashes.

Instead, a couple of lacklustre efforts from the Original Six squads (Boston lost 3-1 to lottery-bound Ottawa) have the Leafs and Bruins limping into the third first-round series in a trilogy whose first two chapters ended tragically for this Leafs core in 2018 and 2019.

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“We had to get to another level in the game emotionally. And we didn’t get there,” coach Sheldon Keefe explained, after his group lost its third blown-lead game in row.

“The last couple of games, we haven’t been able to sustain good portions of the game,” Mitch Marner added. “At times, you’re gonna have to check and defend and weather the storm. So, an area we have to be better with.”

The Maple Leafs took too many penalties and got burned by poor puck management in their own zone and coming through the neutral. This is not a group delivering dialed-in 60-minute efforts down the stretch. Bright side, the same could be said for the Bruins.

“As much as it’s difficult to find the meaning in the game, you got to button up your details and make that the purpose,” Keefe had warned pre-game.

“It’s not going to have the same emotion attached to it. But the detail the structure and the purpose within the game should look the way we want it to.”

There was no sense around the Maple Leafs that they had a preferred Round 1 opponent. The players packed both swimsuits and spring jackets, equally prepped for fairways or Fenway.

Florida is one of hockey’s nastiest and stingiest teams and the reigning Eastern Conference champions; Boston swept its season series against Toronto and its barn rattles with Game 7 ghosts.

“We’re up for the challenge for any team,” said Nick Robertson, after loading up his suitcase. “When you get into playoffs, everyone changes. The desperation is the same whether we play Boston or Florida.”

History aside, Boston appears the more favourable foe for Toronto, with its exposable centre depth, middle-of-the-pack power-play, and mediocre finish.

And yet the Bruins are a top-five defensive squad with a top-seven penalty kill that has the luxury of dressing a Vezina winner as their backup.

“It’ll be a real test. We have to be prepared,” Tavares said.

In other words, the Leafs can’t play in Game 1 like they’ve been playing for the past week.

“They play a playoff game year-round,” Joseph Woll said of the Bruins. “They’re hard to play against, and they have some big bodies. Maybe a bit different look than Florida, but we’ll be ready.”

Fox’s Fast Five

• Auston Matthews’ chase for 70 will roll over to Tampa on Wednesday as his career-high goal streak ends at eight games.

And though the star wasn’t not made available to reporters following the loss, that he registered a team-high five shots and game-high 12 attempts to go with a minus-3 rating makes it clear he wants one more.

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Will Matthews play Wednesday in Game 82?

“We’ll talk about it,” Keefe replied. “We’ve got 12 healthy forwards.”

Bet on Tuesday’s healthy scratches — Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Conor Timmins — all dressing in Tampa. I also wonder if the Leafs go 11-and-7 to give a veteran like, say, Tavares a breather.

• The Panthers outshot the Leafs 29-4 in Period 2. That is not a typo.

• Woll was under siege, facing 41 shots in total. Still, four went in. And that’s too many.

Since returning from his high-ankle sprain in February, Woll has allowed four or more in half his starts.

Hence, the focus on ramping Ilya Samsonov to be the Game 1 starter. And yet Samsonov has surrendered 11 over his past two starts.

“The last few games maybe giving a bit too many goals, I think, from our goalies’ perspective. And it’s up to us to keep our team in it as well,” Woll said, taking ownership without being prompted.

“So, Sammy and I will be working to get better and be ready. But our team looks really strong at certain times, and there’s times when we take over games.”

• The Battle of Florida should be epic. Again.

• Here’s Andrei Vasilevskiy (estimated career earnings: $46.7 million) on whether he would be tuning in to Tuesday’s divisional action to learn the Lightning’s first-round opponent:

“I probably will check the score on the website. I do have TV at home, but I don’t have cable. It’s just too expensive nowadays.”

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