Panthers eliminate Leafs as Toronto heads into an off-season with plenty of questions

Toronto's high-powered attack scored just 10 times in the series

By Joshua Clipperton in Toronto

Morgan Rielly fought his emotions. John Tavares didn’t want to think about tomorrow. Auston Matthews lamented an opportunity missed. Mitch Marner said the belief remains intact.

The Maple Leafs’ season ended in overtime Friday night.

The difficult questions about what comes next have already started.

Nick Cousins scored at 15:32 of overtime and Sergei Bobrovsky made 50 saves as the Florida Panthers downed Toronto 3-2 to win the teams’ second-round series 4-1. 

Cousins buried his second goal of the playoffs off the rush shortside on Leafs rookie Joseph Woll in the extra period to send his team to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1996. 

“You’re disappointed,” said Rielly, who scored for the Leafs and nearly had another. 

“You feel for your teammates, you feel for everybody.” 

Toronto now faces an uncertain future despite its playoff breakthrough against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round — a first for the organization in almost two decades. 

General manager Kyle Dubas doesn’t have a contract beyond June 30, while there have been rumblings about the status of head coach Sheldon Keefe. 

“Still sinking in that the result wasn’t what we wanted,” Toronto captain Tavares said. “Great foundation here.”

But one that has triumphed in a solitary series during this iteration featuring a top-heavy roster of high-paid offensive talent.

The weeks and months ahead will be fascinating.

William Nylander and Matthews both have one year remaining on their contracts and can sign extensions July 1, while fellow star forward Marner’s no-movement clause kicks in the same day. 

And Tavares will be 33 when the 2023-24 season gets underway next fall.

“It’s hard … it’s hard to win,” Matthews said. “We know that more than anybody. It’s a tough one.” 

Toronto’s high-powered attack scored just 10 times in the series — including only three from the so-called “Core Four” of Matthews, Nylander, Marner and Tavares — and totalled just 14 goals over its final seven playoff games. 

The Leafs finished the post-season 1-5 at home. 

“It’s not up to us, but we got a lot of belief in this group,” Marner said of what’s over the horizon. “We’ve got a lot of belief in that core. 

“Sucks right now, but we’ve got belief.” 

The Leafs dropped the first two contests to the Panthers at home before losing on the road in OT to fall behind 3-0 and then winning Game 4 to force proceedings back to Toronto.

“It’s gonna take time for the sting of this series to wear off,” Keefe said. “A missed opportunity for our group.

“We had a team good enough to win the Stanley Cup. We didn’t do that.” 

Aaron Ekblad and Carter Verhaeghe, with a goal and an assist each, scored in regulation for the Panthers. 

Florida — the team with the fewest points to qualify for the post-season — improved to 6-1 on the road this spring after also upsetting the record-setting Boston Bruins. 

The Panthers will meet the Carolina Hurricanes in the third round after they got past the New Jersey Devils in five games. 

“Nobody in the world thought we were going to be in this position,” said Florida winger Matthew Tkachuk, who was named as one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP before the game. 

“We don’t care what anybody’s opinion is.” 

Nylander had the other goal for the Leafs, who advanced in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 when they topped Tampa. 

Woll made 41 stops in his first home playoff start.

“It’s tough,” said the 24-year-old. “Everyone’s disappointed in how everything ended.

“This is a special group of players.” 

Down 2-1 in the third period without much happening, Nylander found an equalizer that materialized out of almost nothing. 

The smooth-skating winger took a pass from Tavares in stride and beat Bobrovsky from a tight angle upstairs with 4:37 left in regulation for his fourth to spark wild celebrations inside a frothing Scotiabank Arena — and the chaotic street party outside the rink on Maple Leaf Square. 

Toronto killed off a penalty for delay of game in an action-packed overtime before Cousins won it with defenceman Radko Gudas driving to the net.

“It’s one of those moments where you’ll grow up and tell your kids about (it),” Cousins, who had 108 text messages when he checked his phone, said on the winning goal. “My daughter’s only 11 months old.

“I have something I get to tell her when she grows up.” 

Florida went ahead 1-0 on a power play at 3:31 of the opening period when Ekblad blasted a one-timer that handcuffed Woll. Verhaeghe then buried his fifth on a one-timer of his own at 16:18 to make it 2-0. 

The Leafs found some life midway through the second and cut the Panthers’ lead in half at 7:50 when Rielly’s point shot made its way through a crowd in front for his fourth. 

Toronto appeared to tie things with 2:49 remaining in the period when Rielly looked to have pushed the puck over the line in tight. 

The call on the ice of no goal stood following a long video review — the officials deemed the play dead prior to the puck crossing the line — which prompted some fans to litter the ice with drinks, water bottles and rally towels. 

“Wasn’t a clear and conclusive view of the initial shot,” Keefe said of the explanation he received. “Then the other shot of the puck in the net, they had said was after the play and the play was dead.”

The home side desperately tried to find an equalizer as the clock drained away in the third — Nylander provided — before Florida broke Leaf hearts in OT. 

Now the focus shifts off the ice as Toronto starts to pick up the pieces.

“Very disappointing that our season is over,” Matthews said. “But I think when you look back on it, you gotta cherish the good moments that you had.

“We’re very blessed and very lucky to be doing what we’re doing.” 

The players also know things could look a lot different when they reconvene for training camp in the fall.

“That’s not up to me to decide,” said Rielly, who’s signed through 2029-30. 

“I love these guys … I don’t want anything to change.” 

Time will tell if he’ll get that wish.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023. 

Banner image via The Canadian Press