Leafs drop Game 1 to fast and furious Panthers, who pull off another upset

Matthew Tkachuk picked up three assists as Florida rolled into Toronto and took Game 1 from the Leafs.

TORONTO — Every playoff series presents inherently different challenges and there were two primary points of emphasis for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday morning: the Florida Panthers play a high-tempo, loosely structured game that is almost diametrically opposite from the deposed Tampa Bay Lightning, and Matthew Tkachuk is a superstar who has soared above his previous reputation as an agitator with some scoring touch.

Although you can certainly absorb these lessons in theory, the Maple Leafs failed the practicum in Game 1 of their second-round series, losing 4-2 to the Panthers in a contest where they should’ve avoided this perilous result. It was a missed opportunity for the Maple Leafs, who failed to contain Tkachuk and his line from the outset. The rest of the Panthers followed in Tkachuk’s footsteps.

Tkachuk registered three assists, nine hits and along with his primary linemates Nick Cousins and Sam Bennett — who scored the first and second goals of the game, respectively — controlled 74.5 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5. Toronto failed the eye test as well and its initial strategy to contain Tkachuk failed miserably.

"There's certainly a lot of similarities in terms of forecheck pressure, attack pressure, they play the same neutral zone forecheck, 1-1-3,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the similarities between the Lightning and the Panthers post-game. “Their pace is high. I would say it's a quicker pace and they have a lot of skill out there that executes at a high rate of speed."

Toronto deployed Selke Trophy finalist Mitch Marner against Tkachuk’s line with the idea being that the Maple Leafs’ superstar winger would win puck battles and essentially offset their scoring touch.

Instead, Tkachuk walked Marner, then got a dangerous shot off that caromed off Ilya Samsonov’s pads onto Cousins’ pathway for the game’s opening goal. Toronto’s fourth line of Zach Aston-Reese, David Kampf and Alexander Kerfoot were caught against the Tkachuk line for almost three minutes during the opening frame and Keefe curiously said post-game his team fared better when he made some adjustments.

Tkachuk was the constant and the idea that he’s a menace focused on inciting violence first, instead of being one of the NHL’s most skilled players at the height of his career, is an outdated notion.

“In terms of dragging the team into the fight, it’s actually more of a production idea instead of intensity causing a problem,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said of Tkachuk during his media availability Tuesday morning. “He’s net-front, hence the production. Him being an agitator isn’t where he starts his game. There’s a maturity in this young man’s game. He’s a performer and he’s a producer. He’s got an edge to him.

“He is an elite performer. His hands are off the charts. They’re different. They’re not like Patrick Kane-ish, they’re a different set of hands.”

Toronto was afforded two golden chances in the opening seven minutes, drawing two power-play opportunities that ended up fruitless. In the opening round, Tampa Bay displayed a tendency to clog up the neutral zone, while shadowing Auston Matthews with its best defensive line.

Florida dared Toronto to adjust to an up-tempo, free-flowing game that relied more on transition offense than set plays upon entering the offensive zone. This type of style should theoretically favour the deeper, more talented Maple Leafs. We know by now that one game isn’t predictive of what may arise from a seven-game series, but the Panthers beat the Maple Leafs in a style that played into the home team’s strengths.

The Leafs dropped their series opener against the Panthers, who picked up right where they left off. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
The Leafs dropped their series opener against the Panthers, who picked up right where they left off. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

Tkachuk’s imprint was all over the game, even when he was out of frame. Holding onto a precarious 1-0 lead as the Maple Leafs showed signs of life, Tkachuk fed Aaron Ekblad at the point, whose shot through traffic was deflected by Bennett for the 2-0 goal.

"What's made us very successful is we're kind of oblivious to the situation that we're in," Tkachuk said Tuesday morning. "That's a great thing for us, just staying right in the moment and not letting the outside noise in. It's just allowed us to focus one day at a time and really allows us to enjoy it.

Playing in a free-flowing game, the Maple Leafs finally broke through when Matthew Knies scored the first goal of his career, one that may end up leading his career highlight mixtape sometime in the 2040s.

Receiving a feed from Matthews, Knies cut sharply to the net, stopped abruptly and tucked the puck away with his back to the cage. It was a moment of pure genius from the 20-year-old, who was relieved to reach this milestone, even if the loss — and the compounding effects of it — overshadowed his excellent night.

“It’s a surreal feeling, especially in the playoffs," Knies said post-game, trying to suppress a smile. "Having Auston pass that to me was only fitting."

Knies was arguably the Maple Leafs’ best player, a proposition that is enthralling and worrisome at the same time. He’s not just the future, he’s already a massive part of the present but what does it say about the team overall when the 20-year-old rookie steps up on the biggest stage they’ve collectively faced? We’ll find out in due time, but for now, both sides of this coin are equally weighted.

Michael Bunting notched the game’s equalizer and for a moment, the Maple Leafs looked like they were back in the driver’s seat, ready to fly past the Panthers and punish their opponent for their exuberance. The free-flowing nature of the game allowed for several open-ice hits, much to the delight of the Scotiabank Arena crowd.

But late in the second period, Jake McCabe got caught way too deep into the offensive zone and TJ Brodie, who is usually Toronto’s most stable defenseman, got caught up in the excitement and took a terrible lane to the puck, allowing Carter Verhaeghe to sneak in past him, receiving an expertly-placed pass from Anthony Duclair before beating Samsonov clean on a breakaway.

Brandon Montour scored the insurance goal and who else but Tkachuk was there for the primary assist. Tkachuk drew Bunting in and sent the puck to Montour, whose shot beat a frozen Ryan O’Reilly and William Nylander, the latter inadvertently screening Samsonov for the 4-2 goal. Tkachuk is known to run over his opponents and he didn’t shy away from the physical aspects of the game, but tonight, he outshone Marner as an all-world playmaker.

Toronto desperately tried to fight back but as the game went on, Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky grew exponentially more powerful, shutting the door on a half-dozen golden chances. Tkachuk and his linemates were the primary reasons why the Panthers won, but Bobrovsky showed why he’s a two-time Vezina winner by making 34 saves. He's prone to erratic play but when he’s on the upswing, he can frustrate and baffle some of the world’s best forwards.

In the long view, there’s no need for doom and gloom for Toronto. It was precisely two weeks ago that the Maple Leafs got annihilated by the other Floridian club, prompting scathing questions about the team’s short- and long-term viability. Toronto will have to adjust but it better do so quickly, because the Panthers' blistering pace and the imminent consequences that are attached to a 2-0 deficit will force this club into a steep learning curve.