SUNRISE, Fla. — The Maple Leafs scored two goals in Game 3. Sam Lafferty and David Kämpf were on the ice for both.
Which is good for Lafferty and Kämpf.
Not so good for the Leafs and what that says about their biggest stars in the highest stakes game of the season. With the season effectively on the line, down 0-2 to the Panthers, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander all came up short. Very short. They failed to deliver when their team needed them most, in a way that has sadly become familiar and raises real questions about whether they will ever deliver and if major changes are coming. impose.
Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander — the four players who tallied 146 regular-season goals and 13 in the first round against Tampa Bay — are yet to score a second-round goal against Florida.
The Leafs have scored just six goals so far in the series, two per game. Scorers: Matthew Knies, Michael Bunting, Alex Kerfoot, Ryan O’Reilly, Lafferty and Erik Gustafsson.
The Leafs’ four big stars, the four who, along with Morgan Rielly, have been there for every playoff failure since 2019, still haven’t always found the extra gear needed in the playoffs. They got there just enough against Tampa Bay and eventually won a round. But a round is just a round and a far cry from what the Leafs are actually trying to accomplish here.
The fact that it happened again — the Leafs’ four biggest stars failed to get away with it — when the stakes rose even higher in a second-round game that was close to do-or- die suggests that may never happen. Not with those four stars on top. Maybe it’s just missing a gear. A fatal flaw that will prevent this team, with these four leaders, from ever overcoming the real obstacle: winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in more than 50 years.
The big four collectively created all sorts of chances in Games 1 and 2 and were stopped by Sergei Bobrovsky’s blistering performance. But they were largely punchless and ineffectual, tight and tentative, in the most crucial game yet, when a failure would all but seal the team’s fate.
“We try to do all the right things,” Marner said. “I think we had our chances, we had our looks. It’s just not gone for us yet.
Matthews snatched a shot from the post in the first minute on Sunday night and then failed to generate even a single attempt on goal until five minutes elapsed in the third. Marner uncharacteristically gave the puck away not once but twice in his own area in the opening frame and looked uncomfortable all night.
“Obviously I give credit to Florida. They play it hard,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said of Marner, who had 11 points in the first round. “Mitch is a great player. He was a great player – he works there, he tries. Today is a different match than the other two. There isn’t much attack available to either team.
The puck was rarely on Marner’s or Matthews’ stick. This always signals problems. The two stars, playing together, struggled to turn pucks and chase on offense. They were mostly unique to the Florida area. A brief burst and out. They didn’t even feel a little dangerous until midway through the third period when Matthews finally peeked at Bobrovsky from the right faceoff circle.
“I think there were periods where we controlled the game and had a good O (time) zone,” Matthews said. “But probably not as much as we need or as much as we would like.”
Their line, with Michael Bunting to round things out, belonged to the Panthers front line led by Aleksander Barkov in Game 3. That hadn’t been the case in Games 1 and 2 when Matthews went particularly wild with clear looks that Bobrovsky simply denied. More of that and the Leafs’ best player could have broken through.
“Maybe we’re just a little disconnected sometimes going through our end and in the neutral zone and the offensive zone,” Matthews said.
Keefe started his line to start the second period and almost instantly saw Anthony Duclair rush in for the breakaway that ultimately ended Ilya Samsonov’s night.
After two periods, Florida’s shot attempts were 19-9 when Matthews was there and 21-7 when Marner was on the ice.
“There weren’t a lot of opportunities for our guys there,” Keefe said.
Keefe worked to put them in good places to create. He started the Kämpf and O’Reilly lines almost exclusively in the defensive zone and, with just 11 forwards, was able to charge Matthews and Marner with Tavares for a pair of offensive zone draws in the third.
Duclair nearly scored again on the first. Keefe tried again anyway. Not only was he unrewarded, but the Panthers also tied the game with Matthews, Marner and Tavares on the ice together.
In two minutes and 16 seconds of Matthews, Marner and Tavares together — the Leafs’ three highest-paid players — shot attempts were 8-1 in favor of Florida.
It was emblematic of how things went all night in the biggest game of the season. The Panthers and their best players dictated the terms, and the Leafs’ best players largely caved to those terms.
Nylander made a sensational play to kick off Gustafsson for the 2-1 goal, his first assist and first point of the series. But for the most part, he wasn’t able to carry his dynamic third period from Game 2 into Game 3. He was limited to one shot on just two attempts.
He still hasn’t scored a single five-on-five playoff goal (and he didn’t have one in the last playoffs either).
And without Nylander firing on all cylinders, Tavares struggled to generate anything good. When he did, his shots either missed or were blocked.
The Leafs talked about making Bobrovsky’s life harder after Game 2, but largely failed to do so.
A Florida defense with Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling, Marc Staal and Brandon Montour had the advantage.
“I think they are very tight,” Tavares said. “Obviously we’re trying to get to the middle of the ice and we have to find a way to do that. Obviously they are trying to protect him. We must continue to work to bring them down.
The Leafs captain has no points in this series. Nylander has just one assist.
Keefe mistakenly kept them paired with Calle Järnkrok to start Game 3, only to see – again – that he couldn’t give them the kind of lift they needed. O’Reilly, a ceiling lifter, joined the pair for most of the third period.
“Obviously (we) just have to find a way to capitalize a bit more,” Tavares said. “They defend very tight in and around their net. We just didn’t come from the right side and didn’t make the play we needed to get the result we wanted.
The Leafs’ top line all night was the third unit of O’Reilly, Kerfoot and Noel Acciari. They were able to turn D-zone mush into O-zone opportunity. They were tough and heavy on the pucks in a way the stars usually weren’t.
It has this team considering the possibility of another early exit from the playoffs — possibly the worst yet.
If the Leafs fail to make history and return to this series, management, regardless of line-up, will have no choice but to consider, more than ever before, whether it’s time to pass from at least one of these stars. It will also take a close look at Keefe and decide if he is the right coach for this team, for these stars.
Rolling it back is going to be irrelevant after that.
“Obviously we’re in a tough spot now,” Matthews said. “But all we can do is focus on this next game. Obviously it’s do or die now, so it starts with a game.
— Statistics and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.
(John Tavares top photo: Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)