Frustrated Keefe laments ‘baffling’ Leafs’ G2 struggles vs. Panthers

TORONTO — The Maple Leafs were doomed by an awful second-period performance in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference second-round series against Florida on Thursday night. And coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t mince words about how his team struggled following the 3-2 loss, which put Toronto in a 2-0 series hole.

“Disappointing. Baffling,” Keefe said of the Maple Leafs’ second-period play. “We didn’t make those mistakes one time in the last series [in the first round against Tampa Bay].”

Toronto got the start it wanted in Game 2. The Maple Leafs simply couldn’t maintain their momentum.

Alex Kerfoot opened the scoring early in the first period to put Florida on its heels and Ryan O’Reilly followed with a power-play goal, Toronto’s first on a man advantage since Game 4 of its first-round series against Tampa Bay.

The Maple Leafs were dominating where they hadn’t in Game 1’s 4-2 loss. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t sustainable.

Anton Lundell got one back for the Panthers midway through the opening frame, as Florida got back to its aggressive ways rattling the Maple Leafs with bone-crushing hits through the neutral zone and a suffocating forecheck.

Toronto escaped the first period with a 2-1 lead. That wouldn’t last either.

First, it was a William Nylander giveaway turning into a goal for Aleksander Barkov just 46 seconds into the second period. Then Auston Matthews coughed up a puck and Gustav Forsling buried it. That was two goals just 47 seconds apart and it was 3-2 Florida in the opening minutes of the second period.

John Tavares hit a post. Twice. Toronto had its chances but couldn’t salvage what was a disastrous 20 minutes.

No one felt that more than Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov. He stopped 26 shots in the defeat and held Toronto’s crease tight in the third period to give it a chance to come back and force overtime. It wasn’t enough, though, when Florida netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, who turned aside 34 shots, was playing lights out.

Despite the final outcome, Samsonov didn’t hold back when asked about how he stacks up against Bobrovsky in the series so far.

“I don’t give a f—,” Samsonov said of being compared to Bobrovsky. “It doesn’t matter for me. I’m doing his work, he’s doing his work.”‘

It was a strong statement from the Maple Leafs goalie following a game where Toronto had control early and then fell apart. The second period might have been the worst of the Maple Leafs’ postseason so far and was the ultimate nail in their Game 2 coffin. But that was only one piece of a rapidly decaying puzzle for them.

In the broader sense, Florida’s netminder has been the difference-maker it has needed in the series. Bobrovsky has allowed just four goals on 72 shots thus far and was perfect in the third period on Thursday, turning aside all 11 Maple Leafs attempts on net. Meanwhile, Samsonov has given up seven goals on 57 shots. In a tight-checking series so far, that’s been a major factor. In Thursday’s defeat though, it was particularly glaring that Toronto held a lead early but couldn’t hold onto it thanks to some swift goal-scoring from Florida in the second.

Florida’s known for its ferocious physicality, and one play in particular appeared to do real damage when Sam Bennett took Maple Leafs rookie Matthew Knies down by the neck late in the first. No penalty was called and Knies finished out the opening frame but would not return for the second period. Keefe had no update on Knies after the game but said his status “isn’t positive” after he was forced out for the night.

Later in that second frame Bennett cross-checked Michael Bunting in the throat and was given a two-minute minor. Keefe called it “eerily similar” to the play for which Matthews was suspended last year when he cross-checked Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.

Those are typically the types of play that could warrant a review by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety and possibly earn Bennett supplemental discipline. His teammate Matthew Tkachuk disagreed that would be the case.

“I do not think he’ll hear from player safety,” Tkachuk opined after the game.

Either way, Toronto is focused from its largest deficit of the postseason so far. Keefe said he thought Samsonov was “fine” but the goalie will have to be better than that when Game 3 rolls around on Sunday.

Panthers coach Paul Maurice sees the upcoming two-day break “will be good for us.”

It’s on the Maple Leafs now to prove Maurice wrong.

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