The Maple Leafs came back to Florida, hoping fortunes would shine on them in a new season versus the team that ended their last one.
It was a Panthers team different from the group that eliminated Toronto in five games, but by the end of Thursday’s game, coach Sheldon Keefe had blendered his forward lines in a futile search for more scoring.
Give Toronto credit for not folding after two spirit-crushing goals late in the first period, but it was déjà vu all over again Thursday, a close loss to the Cats after four of last spring’s five playoff games between the teams were settled by a goal.
Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a .943 save percentage in that second-round series, made 30 stops in the 3-1 final. That included two on John Tavares near the end, while his team blocked a number of chances in surviving a 6-on-4 power play that ended in their empty net goal.
It evened Toronto’s record at 2-2 with two goals total in the last two games after its blitz of offence in opening week home wins.
Keefe changed lines and defensive pairings the day before, among other things trying to get the talented Matthew Knies top six minutes with Tavares and William Nylander, while letting Max Domi find his way with his third different unit in four games.
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Tyler Bertuzzi, who was a game-time decision with an undisclosed injury, was taken off the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Keefe told reporters in Sunrise after the game he thought Bertuzzi wasn’t at full capacity to keep up, though the Leafs have little option, as they’re unable to carry an extra forward because of salary cap constraints.
Bertuzzi, one of this year’s newcomers, re-surfaced with David Kampf and Domi, while Calle Jarnkrok was restored with the two all-stars.
“We’ve had our looks with Bert, it just hasn’t worked right now,” said Marner, who had Toronto’s only goal, coming on the power play. “I’m sure there’s no panic mode, we know it will work eventually. Right now, (Keefe’s) put a couple of people with us that have worked before to bring the chemistry.
“It’s always a little tricky (integrating new players). Pre-season is what it is, not close to the regular season. You have to play a full NHL team that comes with 100% (effort).
“We’ve done a good job getting pucks off the wall towards the net, we’ve had looks, it just hasn’t worked.”
In the third period, Keefe tried a few more things, including dogged Noah Gregor moved up with Tavares and Nylander. It was the late period lapse prompting him to re-write the forwards’ script again, though he was mildly critical of Ilya Samsonov.
“Two goals from distance … I’d like to see him find a way to get one of those, especially when the guy at the other end is not giving you much,” Keefe said.
Three Leafs responded to a Panthers dump in on the first goal, but new defenceman John Klingberg didn’t recognize Gregor was near him and not on the wall when he passed. Kevin Stenlund rifled in the free shot. With less than seven seconds to go, Toronto was lax on its breakout and Oliver Ekman-Larsson picked up his first as a Panther.
The new combinations gave the Leafs some spark in the second period and after Morgan Rielly missed an empty net, Marner scored on an abbreviated advantage, draining a Tavares rebound.
The Leafs were taxed killing three second-period minors, but put the Panthers on edge each time they dropped Matthews into the mix as he generated a couple of short-handed chances and drew a call himself. The visitors escaped a short-handed goal against when Klingberg lost a puck at the Panthers line and Sam Reinhart fired high on Samsonov.
Klingberg was teamed with Mark Giordano as the defence underwent some overhaul. Inconsistent Jake McCabe did better beside Timothy Liljegren.
Samsonov had his best game of three making 21 stops, with a couple of stretch pad saves. He said he didn’t get a good look at either goal and quipped “maybe I need to buy some glasses.”
“Not a great result today, but I feel my game was going better,” the goalie said. “They made a couple of good shots against us, but we don’t have time for crying. We have too many games on this road trip and the sun is up tomorrow.”
Gregor nearly scored at the middle frame buzzer on a late rush when pulled down. That yielded a power play to start the third at 6-on-5, but the intermission and fresh ice didn’t result in success for Toronto’s No. 1 group.
While Radko ‘Old Yeller’ Gudas has moved on along with a lot of Panthers from last year, Matthew Tkachuk was still his pesky self, an extra dig at a covered puck by Samsonov.
After beating the Leafs last spring, then Carolina for the Eastern title, the Panthers lost the Stanley Cup to Vegas. They had a low-key conference banner ceremony before the game.
“I think rivalries are built in the playoffs,” coach Paul Maurice said before the match. “They’re nor divisional or conference.
“(But) there’s no way to play a series against Toronto and not have it be an event. There’s just so much coverage, so much scrutiny out on everything. There will be an extra energy in this with Toronto, Boston and Carolina. It’ll be a different year in these series for sure.”
Marner didn’t want to look in the rear-view mirror.
“It was a long time ago,” he said before the game. “It’s a new season, we have a lot of games to play. There’s nothing you can change about the past. We’re excited about the here and the now and what we have in this room.”
People hoping to see Gudas encounter new Leafs enforcer Ryan Reaves after the Panthers defenceman rubbed it in the face of goalie Joseph Woll following the elimination goal will have to wait for Toronto to play Gudas’s new Anaheim team in January. But Maurice thought the famous picture of Gudas looming over the goalie was “kind of funny”.
“He’s just such an emotional guy. It was his barbaric yelp. People from Toronto didn’t appreciate it the same way we did.”
Saturday in Tampa Bay will be role reversal for the Leafs. Not since Oct. 5, 2005 against Ottawa have they been in a regular season game against the team they eliminated the previous spring.