John Tavares stood in the middle of a dark locker room trying to explain another loss where Toronto’s stars – including himself – couldn’t tell the difference.
There was no anger or challenge from a line that wasn’t good enough in the Maple Leafs’ second-round playoff series.
Now they have no margin for error. And a steep, almost impossible climb.
Sam Reinhart scored 3:02 into overtime on Sunday as the Florida Panthers beat Toronto 3-2 to take a 3-0 lead and push the Leafs to the brink of elimination.
WATCH | Reinhart lifts the Panthers over the Maple Leafs in OT:
“Tight hockey game,” Tavares said. “You have to find a way to capitalize a bit more. They defend very tight in and around their net. We just didn’t come out on the right side and didn’t make the necessary play to get the result.”
“It sucks,” Marner added later. “But I have to forget about it quickly, be pissed off. Now it’s do or die.”
“I don’t think we can get frustrated,” Marner said. “Once you get frustrated, things don’t really go well.”
“We had good chances and good periods,” Matthews said. “A few messages, things just don’t drop… just can’t get discouraged.”
“We’ve had a lot of guys stepping in at the big moments”
The Panthers, who qualified for the playoffs after winning the Presidents’ Trophy last season, are now one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals.
Reinhart caught the puck behind the net on the winning streak and curled it on a surprised Joseph Woll for his fifth goal of the playoffs.
“We had a lot of guys who stepped up in the big moments,” the Panthers center said. “We all try to execute the same game plan. We gain confidence in difficult situations.”
Sergei Bobrovsky made 22 saves for the Panthers, who lead 3-0 in a series for the first time since 1996.
“Savor the opportunity,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who added two assists, said of his group’s mentality. “Live in the moment.”
Erik Gustafsson and Sam Lafferty answered for Toronto, which would host a potential Game 5 on Friday.
“Today was the real pressure,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Next game, go out and play. You have to win. This game could have gone either way. A missed opportunity for us here, just like game 2 [was a] missed opportunity.
“These things add up…but we’ll come ready to play and look to get our one win and then you’ll be home to get another.”
Woll replaces Samsonov through injury
Woll stopped 18 shots after replacing Ilya Samsonov, who was injured in a collision with Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn in a friendly fire case early in the second period. Samsonov made eight saves before being replaced by his rookie replacement.
“Excellent,” Tavares said of Woll. “Not surprising. Its potential is exorbitant.”
WATCH | Samsonov leaves the game with an injury after a collision with Schenn:
Toronto fell to 3-1 on the road in the playoffs – all in overtime – and lost three straight for the first time since late October after a tough night against the miserly Panthers.
Only four teams have come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series in NHL history – Leafs (1942), New York Islanders (1975), Philadelphia Flyers (2010) and the Los Angeles Kings (2014).
Leading 1-0 after Sunday’s first period, Samsonov was injured 37 seconds into the second when Schenn slammed into his goalie trying to thwart a Florida scoring chance. The Russian remained on the ground and was examined by the Toronto coach before going out.
Woll, who played in the third period of Game 1 against Tampa, came off the bench in relief with Schenn in the penalty area for tripping.
“It’s still a hockey game,” Woll said. “My process doesn’t change no matter the Stanley Cup final or an exhibition game.”
WATCH | What fans say the Leafs need to win:
Toronto nearly killed Florida’s power play, but Duclair scored his second of the postseason on a nice deke to tie things up at 2:36.
But the Panthers, twice victorious in Toronto thanks in large part to Bobrovsky’s stellar play and now on a franchise-record playoff winning streak that stands at six games, tied the score again at 12:28 when Verhaeghe tipped his fourth.
Woll made a big save on Anton Lundell with less than seven minutes left in regulation time to keep the Leafs’ hopes alive before a huge save on Sam Bennett to force extra time.
“He was terrific,” Keefe said of his goaltender. “He’s ready for this.”
The Leafs open the scoring quickly
Toronto opened the scoring 2-for-1 at 2:26 from first when Lafferty once caught a pass from David Kampf after Matthews hit the post less than 20 seconds into the game before the Panthers pushed back – and push Toronto toward the precipice of another offseason of tough questions after last weekend’s emotional playoff breakthrough.
“I have to start with one (win) and give you a shot,” Keefe said. “They have total control.
“It’s up to us now to make it uncomfortable for them and not walk away.”
LAFF MAKES US GO!!! pic.twitter.com/8jTkVnQgsa
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