Frustration builds as Leafs head to Florida in deep hole
Florida scored two goals in the opening 1:06 of the second period to take a 3-2 lead. Photo by Frank Gunn/CP.

TORONTO – They are heading out on an extended playoff road trip and they are telling themselves that if anyone can pull out of an 0-2 hole in a playoff series, it’s them.

The Maple Leafs may even be right.

But if they’re truly going to beat the Florida Panthers they must first join them. They need to find some urgency and attitude, and they need to treat Sunday night’s visit to FLA Live Arena as if it’s a Game 7.

“This isn’t a marathon for us,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said before Thursday’s 3-2 win in Toronto. “We’re not here for two months, we’re here for tonight.”

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The Leafs are left trying to channel that same energy because moral victories aren’t enough after dropping consecutive games to open this best-of-seven. They might have won either game, or both, except that self-inflicted mistakes and Sergei Bobrovsky conspired against those plans.

Falling behind 3-0 in this series isn’t an option.

Not if they intend to push forward and build on the franchise’s first trip out of the first round in 19 years.

The frustration was apparent as they let a golden opportunity slip by at Scotiabank Arena, squandering a dominant start and an early 2-0 advantage in Thursday’s game. The Panthers completely reversed the flow during a 47-second stretch to start the second period that saw them strip William Nylander of a puck and deny Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews from an easy zone exit while grabbing a lead they’d hold until the final buzzer.

“Disappointing,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “Baffling, frankly. We didn’t even make those mistakes one time in the last series.”

“We’ve just got to do a better job with taking care of the puck,” added captain John Tavares.

“They’re very good at making good on their opportunities, especially coming off turnovers,” said Matthews.

The Leafs are in search of a similar level of finish after throwing the house at Bobrovksy. That includes multiple “Grade A” looks off Nylander’s stick that struck iron and a wide-open chance from Matthews in the slot he couldn’t put home.

While there is hope to be found in Florida’s porous defensive play, you have to wonder if the former Vezina Trophy winner will take up residency in the minds of Leafs shooters as they replay their missed chances during the two days of dead air before Game 3. 

“I must have jumped out of my seat about three times because I thought we had the puck in the net,” said Matthews. “It’s either laying right there or just missed.”

There was an added layer of tension because Sam Bennett knocked Leafs rookie Matthew Knies out of the game with an apparent head injury after driving him into the ice away from the play in the first period. Bennett also felled Michael Bunting with a cross-check to the head that Keefe called “eerily similar” to the one Matthews delivered on Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin in the outdoor Heritage Classic last season, earning a two-game suspension.

There is no suspension coming for Bennett in this instance.

No, that will be just one more situation Toronto has to play through with their season dangling close to the cliff’s edge.

Emotions were running high throughout Game 2 – the cameras caught general manager Kyle Dubas hurling a water bottle in frustration at one point in the third period – and that’s why the roller-coaster action of playoff hockey is so challenging to stomach.

Frankly, it was the kind of night where the Leafs felt like everything was going against them, right down to the fact their plucky opponent was exhibiting a particular sense of zen.

“The pressure isn’t really there for us. We’re just showing up and playing,” said Panthers forward Sam Reinhart. “You know, every night’s a Game 7 for us and it really has been that way for a while.

“A lot longer than when the playoffs started.”

Florida needed an unlikely six-game winning streak just to get into the Stanley Cup tournament and must feel like it's playing with house money after knocking off the 65-win Boston Bruins in Round 1.

Now a trip to the Eastern Conference Final is coming into view. At least if they take a moment to look slightly above the horizon.

“It’s a long series,” cautioned Leafs forward Ryan O’Reilly. “There’s a lot of hockey left and we have to keep building our game, get better as we go.

“I’m not worried.”

There’s every reason to take the playoff sage at his word.

As for his Toronto teammates?

Well, that’s to be determined.

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