By Stan Smith
The 2023 season ended for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night as they lost game five of their second-round series 3-2 to the Florida Panthers eliminating themselves from the playoffs.
I know. I know. What good can be said when the Maple Leafs finished yet another season on such a sour note? But, in every game, be it a win or a loss there are good and bad things happen within the game.
Another Come Back
The one thing the Maple Leafs have been able to do in this postseason is come back in games. They did it twice in the first round against the Tampa Bay Lightning, including a four-goal outburst after going down 4-1 in game four in that series.
They did it in Game 1 of this series. After going down 2-0, they scored two goals in a six-minute span of the second period to tie the game at two.
They did it once again in this game. After going down 2-0 in the first period, the Maple Leafs got a goal in the second and one in the third to force the game into overtime.
Morgan Rielly scored in the second period to make the score 2-1 Florida. After scoring just four goals in 65 games in the regular season, this goal was Rielly’s fourth in 11 games in the playoffs. It was also his 12th point, presently second in playoff scoring for defensemen. In a postseason that saw the Maple Leafs as a team allow two more goals than it scored (33 goals for, 35 goals against), Rielly was plus-11 in plus/minus.
William Nylander (the good)
William Nylander scored what would have been the biggest goal of his career when he tied the game at two with four-and-a-half minutes left in the third period. It was the kind of single-handed, highlight-reel goal that he’s becoming known for. He came close to duplicating the play, and the shot on his next shift but missed the net.
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Once again Joseph Woll gave his team a chance to win the game. He allowed just two goals in regulation and made some spectacular saves with the game on the line. He finished the playoffs with a 0.915 Save Percentage and a 2.43 Goals-Against-Average.
Luke Schenn might have been Kyle Dubas’ best acquisition at the trade deadline. He was the steadiest Maple Leafs’ defenseman in the postseason and was the perfect partner for Morgan Rielly.
With all of the firepower the Maple Leafs have on their roster, they could only manage two goals a game for their last seven straight games in the postseason. In a sport and a league where three goals is the median number, two goals will not win you many games. It doesn’t matter how good your team is defensively. Their record in those last seven games was two wins and five losses.
I know all about making your own luck. However, like it or not, luck does come into play in winning or losing, especially in hockey. One good bounce here, or a bad bounce there, can make a huge difference.
In this game, the positioning of the referee, and a multitude of cameras resulted in what appeared to possibly have been a goal, being ruled as no-goal. First, the referee behind the net was standing more toward the wrong side of the net to see for himself if the puck crossed the line. While the puck did appear to cross the goalline at one point during the play, it was not conclusive when it crossed the line. Or, was goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s pad pushed across the goalline with the puck under it?
The deciding factor was ultimately the original call by the referee. If he had managed to see the puck over the line and called it a goal in the first place, it might have stood up as a good goal. I don’t blame the referee, it was just a bad break for the Maple Leafs that his vision of the puck was blocked out.
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There were many reasons the Maple Leafs lost this series and this game. There were different unfortunate events that led up to the winning overtime goal by the Panthers. The one vision I will keep seeing over and over again in my head is Radko Gudas grabbing onto Calle Janrkrok’s stick and pulling him off his feet. That move foiled his attempt to block Nick Cousin’s shot that won the game.
I think back to Justin Holl’s interference call in Game 7 of last season’s playoffs that negated the tying goal by John Tavares. While this was a different play and a different infraction, it was an infraction. What Gudas did was a penalty, and it did affect the outcome of the game.
Maybe it is just sour grapes on my behalf. However, I think that should have been called.
After a solid performance in Game 4, Timothy Liljegren found himself on the wrong end of two Panther’s goals in this game. On Florida’s second goal, Liljegren failed to get enough of his stick on an alley-oop flip pass through the neutral zone by the Panthers. He got a piece of it and came within inches of forcing Carter Verhaghe offside, but it wasn’t enough of it.
After Verhaeghe gained the zone, Liljegren followed the puck when Verhaeghe passed it to Anthony Duclair instead of staying with Verhaeghe.
On the winning goal, Liljegren jumped into a three-on-two rush with Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari. After Acciari failed on a pass attempt to Liljegren in front of the Florida net, Liljegren and O’Reilly collided. At the same time, Acciari fell down, causing a three-on-two going the other way.
William Nylander (the bad)
The play that Nylander makes leading up to the Panther’s second goal is the type of play that makes Nylander such a frustrating player to watch. Nylander is standing just inside the Florida blueline when Aaron Ekblad flips the puck down the ice. Nylander then just stands there and watches the puck go over his head. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t attempt to get back defensively.
To make matters worse, the player that ultimately gets the primary assist on the goal, Duclair, skates right by Nylander as he is leaving the zone. Nylander has the speed and he could have stayed with Duclair, but he doesn’t. Nylander makes a half of a motion to get in Duclair’s way as he is exiting his zone. If he would have seriously tried to hold Duclair up, he could have taken him out of the play altogether. But he doesn’t.
In the end, Nylander watches the play move past him. He then casually skates back in the direction of the Maple Leafs zone apparently hoping someone on the team will get the puck and get it up to him for an offensive chance.
This is exactly the type of play that peewee players get benched for. I know that from experience.
The biggest “Ugly” is that just five games after the jubilation of the Maple Leafs finally breaking a 19-year drought of failing to win a playoff round, the season is done.
Once again Lucy has pulled the proverbial football away from thousands of Maple Leafs fans just as they thought we were finally going to get a chance to kick it.
The repercussions of this Round 2 loss could be tremendous. No one person’s job is safe, starting right at the top with Brendan Shanahan. Hard decisions are going to have to be made.
It should be an interesting offseason.
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