Tkachuk factor sends Maple Leafs back to the drawing board for Game 2
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov (35) looks on from the Leafs bench during third period, second round, game one, NHL Stanley Cup hockey action against the Florida Panthers, in Toronto, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. Photo credit: Frank Gunn/CP.

TORONTO – The battle lines have been drawn.

The Leafs vs. the delightful chaos found every time Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett get on the up-tempo forecheck.

The Panthers vs. officials who have whistled them for more penalties than any other NHL team, both in the regular season and so far in these playoffs.

And, above all, a Toronto-Florida series that looks like it’ll be much tighter than many in Leafs Nation were probably bargaining for when they saw the Boston Bruins removed from the equation with an upset for the ages.

You can expect a certain amount of forecheck and physicality from us,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said after Tuesday’s 4-2 victory. “You’ll expect a certain amount of speed and skill from them. And then one team will feed the other.

“The team that brings the least amount of food to the game, wins.”

Tkachuk was unquestionably the star and story of Game 1, taking over the NHL’s playoff scoring lead with a three-assist night that included nine bone-rattling bodychecks. It will be on the Leafs to find an antidote for the belligerent style he and sidekick Bennett pound opponents with.

Tkachuk believes an aggressive forecheck cumulatively nullified Boston’s blue-line as the opening round unfolded, and his line with Bennett and Nick Cousins found itself dictating terms against Toronto before Round 2 was even 20 minutes old.

That prompted Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe to reunite Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and task them with taking on a matchup with the Panthers' most effective trio. Those lines traded goals 11 seconds apart, with Matthew Knies scoring the first of his NHL career before Bennett’s marker could even be announced inside Scotiabank Arena, but overall Tkachuk and Co. had their way by spending the bulk of the night on offence.

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The pace of attack was notably quicker than what the Leafs faced in Round 1 from Tampa. And there was a certain recklessness in the game that saw Toronto’s defensive zone coverage break down at times and allow the Panthers to generate Grade A chances inside the dots.

“They force you to make mistakes,” said Keefe. “I thought we made some mistakes here tonight that we didn’t necessarily make in the last series.”

That included a costly pinch from defenceman T.J. Brodie, which opened the door for Carter Verhaeghe to get in alone shortly after the Leafs had roared back to tie things up. That was the last player they wanted to let get in the clear, according to Keefe, a nod to the fact Verhaeghe possesses a pinpoint shot and has now scored the game-winner in six of Florida’s nine playoff victories over the last two springs.

“It’s a big part of the plan going in,” Keefe said of marking Verhaeghe. “You cannot make that mistake.”

They will no doubt go back to the drawing board on how to handle Tkachuk before Thursday’s game. That could include another round of tweaks to the forward combinations and adjustments to facilitate quicker and cleaner breakouts.

The Leafs met the physical challenge in the series opener – with Luke Schenn and Jake McCabe each stepping up to lay out Tkachuk, and Morgan Rielly levelling Eric Staal, among other notable collisions – and that’s going to continue to be part of the recipe they try to mix up for success.

“We’ve all got to play that way,” said Schenn. “That’s playoff hockey.”

It was a game where the hosts generated enough chances to assert their will early, especially with two power plays in the opening 10 minutes that tested Sergei Bobrovsky.

They wound up going 0-for-4 with the man advantage in large part due to the Panthers goaltender, but can look at specialty teams as another important area where this series might ultimately be decided.

Maurice believes the Panthers players complained so much in previous seasons that they’ve now got to shake a reputation that sees them get no benefit of the doubt from officials.

Still, he was clearly making a point to Kelly Sutherland and Trevor Hanson in the dying seconds when he held up five fingers on one hand and a single digit on the other – a nod to the differing number of minors assessed to each team in Game 1.

“We have just accepted the fact that we’re going to the penalty box more than the opponent, only because it’s been true the last eight games,” said Maurice.

Should that trend continue, the Leafs dangerous power play must make them pay. They clicked at better than 28 per cent effectiveness while eliminating the Lightning.

Now in an 0-1 hole for the second straight series, they’ll need to disrupt the growing confidence that’s powered Florida to four consecutive wins for just the second time all season. The other instance was the six-game winning streak they put together from late March through early April which carried them into the playoffs.

With Tkachuk elevating, with Bennett crashing and with Bobrovsky reverting to his 2019 form, they are a group that’s peaking at the perfect time.

“We knew we were the crazy underdog story and that doesn’t change this series. Boston did what they did, but Toronto was the one team that was right behind them,” said Tkachuk, conveniently glossing over a 24-point gap in the standings. “I guess the prize for knocking off the best team in the league is to get the second-best team in the league now.”

Don’t let the underdog act distract from what’s really happening here: This series is going to be close, and it’s going to be hotly contested.

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