Maple Leafs vs. Panthers observations: Auston Matthews held off as playoff matchup set

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Maple Leafs vs. Panthers observations: Auston Matthews held off as playoff matchup set

The Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves in an interesting conundrum with playoff implications ahead of this game. Lose to Florida? Face Florida. Beat Florida? Face Boston. Ironically enough, the final result was decided by the end of the second period.

The Leafs came away with an early two-goal lead from Mitch Marner on the power play and Noah Gregor after a well-battled opening period. However, the Florida Panthers turned a gear in the second in what was one of Toronto’s most porous periods of the season. It took 28 seconds for Carter Verhaeghe to get the Panthers into the game with his 34th of the season.

The floodgates were wide open from that point on, and Florida exploded for three goals in three minutes from Sam Bennett, Verhaeghe and Brandon Montour. The Leafs didn’t give up any more goals at even strength afterward in the third, but they also couldn’t solve Anthony Stolarz for a third time. Reinhart wound up getting the empty netter for his second of the game, and the Leafs’ playoff fate was sealed.

After tomorrow’s game, the Boston Bruins will be their opponent.

Quick shoutouts

Pontus Holmberg

I thought he was excellent, especially in the first period. His forecheck and screen gave Gregor the opportunity to score and I liked his hustle on the penalty kill to take the big hit from Brandon Montour, clear the puck and pop right back up to defend the next entry.

Noah Gregor

The first goal he’s scored since December reminded us that point shots through traffic with a screen work.

Mitch Marner 

His 27th of the season was the only goal the Leafs had on their six power-play opportunities.

One more

The first and third periods were big for Matthews’ hunt at his 70th. His better chances were in tight by the net but a good stick or some rotten luck kept the puck out of the net. Sheldon Keefe mentioned how the push has been a distraction, and it got more obvious the longer the game went on. Players pass up opportunities to take a shot for themselves or just throw a puck on the net to force a pass to Matthews in an undesirable spot for nothing to come out of it.

That second period 

Viewers had the best of both extremes, a solid opening period to a horrible second. The Panthers put up 29 shots on Joseph Woll, and that production was a near split between five-on-five and the power play. The Leafs, on the other hand, had four. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The push and competitiveness they had in the first weren’t there, they were out-skated and pushed out of the spots they had success in, the coverage was sloppy at best and they didn’t get that one save to bail them out and stop the bleeding.

The front of the net was a disaster. The Panthers took the free space and instead of sticking in their spots, the Leafs ran around and got out of a position instead of getting in their way.

It was bad.

Dashes at the top

Matthews, William Nylander, Tyler Bertuzzi, John Tavares, and Marner all finished minus-3, while the Morgan Rielly–Ilya Lyubushkin pair was minus-4 and minus-3, respectively. They all saw a lot of the Aleksander Barkov and Sam Bennett lines and had no answer for them in that second period. Both lines lost their minutes at five-on-five; even the Matthews line had a strong start from Marner. There’s the old cliche that in playoff hockey, top lines get shut down, leaving room for the depth to step up, and that was the case here. However, the quality of chances and goals given up in the process was the difference maker.

Fourth line

Ryan Reaves and David Kämpf are back on the same line with Connor Dewar works. You expect the physicality, but they got some offence plays based on their speed overall. Dewar had a few looks himself, including one from Reaves, and the line had a quick and effective transition play in their own end, which resulted in a breakaway chance for Rielly.

Game Score

Final Grade: D+

Aside from a few performances and that opening period, there isn’t much to like about the game. The second one is really disappointing, and it can’t be settled with a shoulder shrug, given that it is Game 81 or a five-minute rant where you blame officiating. The Panthers walked out of that locker room and decided to take the game over, but there was no response from the Leafs to stop them. There wasn’t a single play, moment, or save that threw a wrench in their wave of momentum and for a large portion of the night, playing Florida in the playoffs was still a real possibility.

You go over what Reaves said ahead of this game, look at the product on the ice and wonder where the answers were.

Health is the priority at this point of the season, but good habits should also be a focus, especially since giving up leads has been one of the team’s bad habits this year.

What’s next for the Leafs?

Tomorrow is the final game of the regular season against the Tampa Bay Lightning (7:00 p.m. ET). I expect to see TJ Brodie back in the lineup to give Keefe a last look at playoff combinations, and of course, there’s still goal No. 70 for Matthews.

(Photo: Sam Navarro / USA Today)