This victory for the Florida Panthers was not a surprise.
Winning a series in seven games gives you wings. Since 2018, that is to say in the last five years, the record of the teams which have just emerged from a final confrontation at the top is 13-7 in the opening match of the next round. As well to say that the emotion still on edge seems to have an advantage over rest.
We will therefore not write a novel on the sole fact that the Panthers disposed of the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 4-2. There’s still a lot of time left for the Leafs, it’s only a first meeting, it also started badly against Tampa, etc., etc., etc.
There is however one thing which, well beyond the clichés of circumstance, should worry the men of Sheldon Keefe. The Panthers are devoid of any semblance of complex and look more and more like a club ready to make the playoffs.
It took them everything to get there, let’s remember. The Floridians have secured their place in detail two days before the end of the calendar, after a spectacular rise in the standings. Last January 1, they were eight points from the last place giving access to the series, and this, to the delight of the supporters of the Canadian who, with great blows of online simulations, chuckled with happiness since their favorite team has the Panthers’ 2023 first-round pick.
We are obviously not there anymore. The team that defeated the Leafs on Tuesday night is no longer looking for itself. If a 43-point gap in the standings with the Boston Bruins did not intimidate her, we doubt that the historic accession of the Torontonians to the second round will not move her more.
From those seven games against the Bruins, the Panthers have definitely learned.
Because, we tend to forget, there was a lot to learn. The team certainly made it past the first round last year, their first since making the Finals in 1996, but suffered an awkward sweep against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Before that, the few times we saw the organization in the playoffs, it was only time for a sigh.
This time, in the first round, we found solutions against an opponent superior at all levels. By dint of determination, we adjusted the defensive system to the big machine of the Oursons, to the point of dividing the expected goals evenly at five against five1. We also won the war of nerves, winning the two games that required overtime.
What emerges, and what the Leafs tasted on Tuesday, is a proven recipe for playoff success. A recipe that could be described quite simply:
Matthew Tkachuk continued his work of domination. Three more assists, in addition to nine hits. Meanwhile, Aleksander Barkov has perfectly played his role of extinguisher against the two big opposing lines while contributing to the attack – here he is at eight points in as many meetings.
Carter Verhaeghe and Brandon Montour already deserve, each, a small Claude-Lemieux trophy. Both scored again on Tuesday. Things happen every time they step on the ice.
Montour, Gustav Forsling and Aaron Ekblad swallow up the minutes, as does, to a lesser extent, good old Marc Staal, whose best seasons are however far behind him. In eight games so far, Ekblad has only been on the ice for three 5-on-5 goals.
Let’s talk about him as the one we no longer expected. Sergei Bobrovsky was phenomenal on Tuesday. Bossy against Auston Matthews during a Leafs power play in the second period. Imperial v William Nylander with one minute left in third. He has just signed four straight wins.
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We may note a single downside in terms of depth. Judging by how little head coach Paul Maurice uses his fourth line – less than five minutes against the Leafs – the wear could be felt.
Besides, Maurice made his opponent Sheldon Keefe look bad in that opener by taking full advantage of the on-ice clashes, despite the home team’s presumed advantage of taking advantage of the latest substitution.
Keefe searched for answers, to no avail. He had been slow to juggle his roster against the Lightning; will he show the same patience?
To reporters in Toronto late in the evening, the coach noted that his men had “made mistakes they hadn’t made in the previous series.” The pace, he admitted, is higher than against the Lightning. With an equally grueling level of toughness.
The series is still young, we want it. But the Panthers sent a powerful message. Their triumph over the Bruins was no accident. Another against the Leafs would not be either.
Solid, calm, confident… Words that hadn’t been used to describe him for years. Admirable in the last minutes of the match.
He often struggled, especially against Matthew Tkachuk’s trio. Can (and should) do better.
It was the first time since 1996 that the Florida Panthers had won a second-round game.