The images circulate abundantly on your favorite social network. Maple Leafs fans on the streets of Toronto shouting “We want Florida”, “We want Florida”. It happened last Saturday, after the Leafs won Game 6 against Tampa, the day before Game 7 between the Bruins and the Panthers.
Those fans got what they wanted, but five days later their team could hardly be in a worse situation. Led by the brilliance of Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers defeated the Leafs 3-2 on Thursday in Toronto to take a 2-0 series lead.
To survive, the Torontonians will now have to beat the Panthers at least once at Sunrise, and most importantly, hope Ilya Samsonov is healthy enough on Sunday. As was the case at times in the first round, he still looks inconvenienced, visibly down to one leg or one knee.
But the Leafs’ biggest problem isn’t so much Samsonov as the other Russian goaltender in this series, the aforementioned Bobrovsky. He, the fans shouting “We want Florida” didn’t see it coming.
Bobrovsky is finally playing like the player who was treated to an inflation shield before the idea became popular. In the summer of 2019, the Panthers signed him to a seven-year, $70 million free agent contract. Somewhere in his U-Haul cube must have been the Vezina trophies from 2013 and 2017.
But Floridians haven’t exactly gotten their money’s worth until recently. In season, since his arrival under the palm trees, Bobrovsky is ranked 24th (out of 42 goaltenders who have played at least 100 games) with an efficiency of .905. In three playoff runs, they had, until this spring, won only one series. That was last year, and a loveless sweep awaited them in the next round.
But that same Bobrovsky is now riding a five-game winning streak, coming off the two Atlantic Division titans. His composure early in the game, after the Leafs took a 2-0 lead in just five minutes, deserves credit. The Torontonians on the rink were bombarding him with pucks; those in the bleachers, thundering cries. After seven minutes, the shot chart showed 12-2. But after Bobrovsky’s few saves, Anton Lundell hit the target to cut the gap in half and the Panthers were able to get back into the game.
Bobrovsky just blocked 69 of 73 Leafs shots in two games, for a .945 efficiency. William Nylander and Auston Matthews, authors of six shots each Thursday, will make nightmares. His performances were even invited into the press scrum of his vis-à-vis. To the media present in Toronto, Samsonov said he had nothing to wax, with an expletive in support, Bobrovsky’s performances.
We will not open here the debate on the validity or not of expensive contracts to goalkeepers, especially since of the eight masked men of the NHL who earn six million dollars or more a year, only two remain. in the playoffs, and one of them, Matt Murray, is a backup for the Leafs.
Let’s just say that by leading the Panthers to the four aces, Bobrovsky would help them earn a return on their investment.
Moreover, this match will have made it possible to see how the line is thin between a very good performance and a perfect performance.
The storyline of the Maple Leafs in recent years has been that of a team brimming with talent, but unable to keep up the pace when the stakes demand it. Unable to apply defensively, unable to execute the sacrosanct details that are far more useful in May than in November.
The team is clearly progressing in this direction and it would be unfair to attribute this improvement to the sole arrival of Ryan O’Reilly, an expert in this style.
Mitch Marner, gifted with an incredible offensive talent, ended up convincing the jury – we are talking here about the journalists called upon to vote for the individual honors – who made him one of the three finalists for the Selke trophy. His faithful sidekick Auston Matthews ended the season ranked 1st among NHL forwards in blocked shots.
Again on Thursday, Matthews delivered an inspired performance. Except that he blundered at a very bad time, at the start of the second period, a few moments after the Panthers had created the equality. His daring breakout attempt was intercepted by Eetu Luostarinen, and eight seconds later Gustav Forsling scored what would be the winning goal.
Matthews is very good in these series so far, but with his team trailing 0-2, he will have to find a way to be even better.
The Finnish forward had no points, but he caused the turnovers that led to the first and third goals for the Panthers.
He looked bad on the Panthers’ second goal and there are now questions about his health…
Panthers center Aleksander Barkov has won just 29% of his faceoffs (5 for 17). Might as well save the date, it doesn’t happen often.