The Maple Leafs returned to Florida hoping that they would get lucky in a new season against the team that finished their last season.
It was a different Panthers team than the group that beat Toronto in five games, but by the end of Thursday’s game, coach Sheldon Keefe had shuffled his attack lines in a vain search for more goals.
To its credit, Toronto didn’t give up after two stunning goals late in the first period, but it was déjà vu all over again on Thursday, a narrow loss to the Cats after four of the five playoff games between the teams in the were decided by a goal last spring.
Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a .943 save percentage in that second-round series, made 30 stops in the 3-1 final. That included two against John Tavares late as his team blocked a number of chances to survive a 6-on-4 power play that ended with an empty net.
With a total of two goals in the last two games, Toronto’s record was evened at 2-2 after the team scored rapid home wins on offense in the first week.
Keefe switched lines and defensive pairings the day before, including trying to get the talented Matthew Knies into the first six minutes with Tavares and William Nylander, while letting Max Domi find his way with his third different unit in four games.
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Tyler Bertuzzi, who was a game-time decision due to an undisclosed injury, was taken off the front row along with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Keefe told reporters in Sunrise after the game that he believed Bertuzzi was unable to compete, even though the Leafs had little choice since they couldn’t bring in an additional forward due to salary cap constraints.
Bertuzzi, one of this year’s newcomers, resurfaced with David Kampf and Domi, while Calle Jarnkrok was restored with the two All-Stars.
“We dealt with Bert, it just didn’t work out at the moment,” said Marner, who scored Toronto’s only goal on the power play. “I am sure there is no panic mode, we know it will work eventually. Right now (Keefe) has brought in a few people who have worked before to bring about the chemistry.
“It’s always a little tricky (integrating new players). Preseason being what it is, it’s not nearly anything like the regular season. You have to play against a complete NHL team that gives 100% (effort).
“We did a good job shooting pucks off the wall toward the net. We enjoyed it, but it just didn’t work.”
In the third period, Keefe tried a few more things, including the stubborn Noah Gregor moving up with Tavares and Nylander. It was the late error that prompted him to rework the strikers’ script.
Three Leafs responded to a Panthers throw-in on the first goal, but new defenseman John Klingberg didn’t realize Gregor was near him and not against the wall as he passed. Kevin Stenlund shot the free shot. With less than seven seconds left, Toronto was too slack in its breakthrough and Oliver Ekman-Larsson made his first attack as a Panther.
The new combinations gave the Leafs a boost in the second period, and after Morgan Rielly missed an empty net, Marner scored from a short lead and knocked down a Tavares rebound.
The Leafs were made difficult by killing three minors in the second half, but every time they brought Matthews into the game they gave the Panthers trouble as he created a few shorthanded chances and got a call of his own. The visitors missed a shorthanded goal when Klingberg lost a puck at the Panthers’ line and Sam Reinhart shot high at Samsonov.
Klingberg was paired with Mark Giordano as the defense underwent an overhaul. The inconsistent Jake McCabe fared better alongside Timothy Liljegren.
Samsonov had his best three-point game with 21 stops and a few stretch pad saves.
“Not a great result today, but I feel like my game went better,” said the goalkeeper. “They took some good shots against us, but we don’t have time to cry. We have too many games on this road trip and the sun will come up tomorrow.”
On a late rush, Gregor nearly scored at the midframe buzzer when he was dragged to the ground. That led to a power play to start the third game at 6-on-5, but the break and fresh ice didn’t translate into success for Toronto’s No. 1 group.
While Radko “Old Yeller” Gudas has moved on along with many of the Panthers from last year, Matthew Tkachuk was still his annoying self, an extra attack on a covered puck from Samsonov.
After defeating the Leafs and then Carolina for the Eastern title last spring, the Panthers lost the Stanley Cup to Vegas. Before the game, they held a low-key conference banner ceremony.
“I think rivalries arise in the playoffs,” coach Paul Maurice said before the game. “They are neither department nor conference members.
“(But) there’s no way you can play a series against Toronto without it becoming an event. There’s just so much coverage, so much control over everything. There will be additional energy with Toronto, Boston and Carolina. It’s definitely going to be a different year in this series.”
Marner didn’t want to look in the rearview mirror.
“It’s been a long time,” he said before the game. “It’s a new season, we have a lot of games ahead of us. You can’t change the past. We’re excited about the here and now and what we have in this space.”
Anyone hoping for Gudas to face new Leafs enforcer Ryan Reaves after the Panthers defenseman rubbed goaltender Joseph Woll’s nose following the game-winning goal will have to wait until Toronto plays Gudas’ new Anaheim team in January. But Maurice found the famous image of Gudas towering over the goalkeeper “kind of funny”.
“He’s just such an emotional guy. It was his barbaric scream. Torontonians didn’t appreciate it as much as we did.”
On Saturday in Tampa Bay there will be a role reversal for the Leafs. Since October 5, 2005 against Ottawa, they have not played a regular season game against the team they eliminated the previous spring.