HARD HITS: Leafs’ latest playoff failure leaves more questions for Toronto

After finally exercising the demons by beating the Lightning in the first round, the Maple Leafs couldn’t follow up their first playoff series win in 19 years with a successful second round.

Instead, they were hardly competitive in the first two games against the Panthers. That poor start led to their five-game ouster against what proved to be a better team that’s ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. In defeating the Leafs on an overtime goal from noted finisher Nick Cousins, the Panthers advanced to their first Eastern Conference Final since 1996.

They earned it. When they rallied from a three games to one deficit to stun the record-setting Bruins on the clutch heroics of Carter Verhaeghe, the Panthers proved this postseason would be different than last year’s. This time, they are more playoff ready due to the past experience and one key acquisition, who’s changed how they play.

GM Bill Zito changed the dynamic last summer by packaging Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, along with a lottery protected 2025 first round pick in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk, and a 2025 fourth round pick. Although it nearly didn’t result in a playoff berth until the second to last day of the regular season, Tkachuk dominated by posting an MVP caliber season in the Sunshine state. His 40 goals, 69 assists, and 109 points were recognized by hockey writers who nominated him for the Hart Trophy.

What solidified that deserved candidacy was his epic first round against the top seeded Bruins. By scoring five goals while adding six assists for 11 points, he broke Boston hearts. It was Tkachuk’s sheer determination and grit that led to Verhaeghe scoring in overtime to end the Bruins’ special season. He dug out a loose puck, allowing Sam Bennett to set up Verhaeghe for his second career series clincher in sudden death.

As it turned out, the Panthers were a more complete team than the Leafs, who partied like their first round win was the Stanley Cup. Something that’s eluded the franchise since 1967. It was a strong supporting cast that included captain Aleksander Barkov, Reinhart, Anton Lundell, Bennett, Cousins, Anthony Duclair, Brandon Montour, Gustav Forsling, and ageless warrior Marc Staal that proved to be the difference in the series. Even Eric Staal won battles on the fourth line for Paul Maurice.

They also got strong goaltending from a rejuvenated Sergei Bobrovsky, who replaced Alex Lyon to reclaim the net in the first round. Facing the explosive Toronto offense that features Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly, the two-time Vezina winner was splendid. Bobrovsky turned back the clock by posting a 1.89 GAA and .943 save percentage. He never allowed more than two goals in any game, giving up 10 on 174 shots. A magnificent performance by the 34-year-old veteran.

While the Panthers got key contributions from their core, the Maple Leafs didn’t. Somehow, Matthews went without a goal with only two assists in the series. A far cry from what the former league MVP is capable of. After posting five goals with three helpers for nine points in a satisfying first round win over the Lightning in a much closer series than the five games it went, the 25-year-old Matthews was nowhere to be found against the very detail oriented Panthers. He totaled 26 shots, but none went in.

Even more mystifying was the play of their captain Tavares. After tallying seven points in Round One, he could only muster an assist on William Nylander’s game-tying goal that forced overtime in Game Five. One point from the former Islanders top center won’t help his reputation. He came up small.

So, too did Mitch Marner. After scoring a goal and adding a helper in their only win in the series, he couldn’t get it going. Marner had three points in the series. Of the four top forwards, only Nylander created some good opportunities with his speed. He had points in the last three games, including goals over the final two.

Of all the talented Leafs, it was defenseman Morgan Rielly who was their best player. After a down season, he turned it up in the playoffs. Rielly was clutch against the Lightning scoring big goals, including an overtime winner. He tallied a goal and three assists against Florida. It was his disallowed goal in the third period that created some ugliness from the Toronto home crowd.

He thought he had a tying goal on a play in front. However, Bobrovsky made a save. The whistle had blown after the puck crossed the goal line. A lengthy review concluded that it wasn’t a goal. A tough rule. However, if the refs lose sight of the puck, they can blow the play dead. Even some replays made it hard to tell where the puck was. Bobrovsky had it underneath his pads. Only afterward did the puck cross the line.

Angry fans tossed debris. GM Kyle Dubas threw a tantrum in the press box over the ruling. How many times did the camera catch him acting like a spoiled brat? Don’t answer that. Although he made some good moves by adding Ryan O’Reilly, Luke Schenn, Sam Lafferty, and Noel Acciari to upgrade the roster, it still didn’t result in a Cup. One round win isn’t what they had in mind.

With coach Sheldon Keefe admitting that he believed they could’ve gone all the way, you have to wonder what Leafs brass are thinking. Even promising netminder Joseph Woll couldn’t prevent another gut-wrenching playoff exit. He performed admirably after taking over for an injured Ilya Samsonov. That’s something for the franchise to take a look at moving forward.

They also have to like what they saw from Matthew Knies. After appearing in just three games, he was impressive in seven postseason contests. The 2021 second round pick had a goal and three assists before a tough Bennett hit against the boards ended his playoffs. He suffered a concussion.

The question for the Leafs is, what’s next for a core that still has yet to make a deep run? They’ve qualified for the postseason every year since 2016-17. With over nine million remaining on the salary cap, Dubas has important decisions this summer. O’Reilly is among the key unrestricted free agents. He would cost the most to bring back. Pest Michael Bunting is also available. So are Alex Kerfoot, Acciari, David Kampf, and Zach-Aston Reese.

On the blue line, Schenn can leave. He was a plus-eight during the playoffs. The former Stanley Cup champion has turned himself into a valuable commodity. Several teams should have interest. Dubas rented Erik Gustafsson for Rasmus Sandin. A shortsighted move that could come back to haunt the Leafs.

Samsonov is a restricted free agent. Matt Murray is owed $4.7 million for next season. Maybe they move on and give the keys to Woll. He’s 24 and has played well when called upon. They can’t keep both Samsonov and Murray. It makes no sense.

Even more daunting for Toronto is that both Matthews and Nylander will enter the final years of their contracts. The pressure to win will be immense. It could be the last time they have this group together.

After eliminating the Devils in five games, the Hurricanes are chasing another Cup. They haven’t won since 2005-06. Coach Rod Brind’Amour captained that team to the franchise’s only Cup. He scored a big game-winner to help beat the Sabres on a delay of game minor penalty. Similarly, Jesper Fast notched the overtime winner on another delay of game minor that ended the Devils’ season. The difference is now Brind’Amour coaches them. Ironically, Tim Gleason is an assistant.

Brind’Amour said that sometimes you have to lose before you can win. Of course, he was referring to some of the Canes’ recent past in the postseason. After playing in the Conference Finals his first year behind the bench, they never could get past the second round. There was last year’s agonizing seven-game series loss to the Rangers. A series that favored the home team until Game Seven when it went to the Rangers by a wide margin.

Even without key scorers, Andrei Svechnikov, Max Pacioretty, and Teuvo Teravainen, here are the Hurricanes taking on the upstart Panthers for a chance to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. They have done it by getting contributions from a good supporting cast. Fast has chipped in with five goals. Jordan Martinook tied a team record by posting 10 points in the second round. He was the same gritty player who was on waivers before the season. That is a great story.

Having strength at center has helped. Brind’Amour knows he can count on top scorer Sebastian Aho. A good two-way player who’s sacrificed some scoring to play the game the right way. If Aho and Martin Necas aren’t scoring, there’s the dependable Jordan Staal, who matched up mostly against Jack Hughes. He certainly did a good job.

One move Brind’Amour made was having Jesperi Kotkaniemi play between Martinook and Fast. They easily were the Canes’ best line last round. Kotkaniemi is beginning to show why the Canes were willing to give him an offer sheet. Perhaps the Canadiens miss him. He’s become a strong two-way player who is very noticeable at even strength while winning key draws. That’s the Brind’Amour philosophy.

Having vets Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan on the fourth line is a nice bonus. Both have been a factor during their run. Stepan stealing a puck that led to Stastny eliminating the Islanders in the first round. Stastny scored on a power play early against the Devils to help set the tone. Both are proven vets whose experience has helped.

Brind’Amour went back to Frederik Andersen after Antti Raanta in goal. He gets plenty of help from a defense that’s led by Jaccob Slavin and Brent Burns. But, he’s been there to make the timely saves. Slavin was outstanding against the Devils, finishing with a plus-12 rating. He remains one of the game’s best defensive defensemen who can match up against opponents.

Even Brady Skjei played better in the second round after a tough first round. He finished checks and contributed offensively. Partner Brett Pesce is the more defensive player who makes good reads. He scored a goal by jumping in.

When you look at Carolina, they’re not an overwhelming team talent wise. However, they’re a team in every sense. That’s why they’ll take on the Panthers in an old Southeastern Division battle.

For the Devils, they learned something from their breakthrough season. Although they relied heavily on Hughes, whose 43 goals and single season record 99 points were followed up by 11 in 12 postseason games, they wouldn’t have come back to beat the Rangers without key vets Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula, who indicated that he wants to stay in New Jersey. He’s going to be a hot commodity this summer.

Bringing in experienced players who have been through the playoff grind helped the Devils reach the second round. Kudos to Team President and GM Tom Fitzgerald, who was also willing to acquire Timo Meier. Both he and Jesper Bratt will command a lot as restricted free agents. But Fitzgerald has plenty of room to bring back both.

The Devils will get key checking center Mike McLeod re-signed. He was arguably their most effective player against the Canes. Only 25, the former 2016 first round pick, does all the little things that help you win. How about that shorthanded goal he scored against the Rangers. He plays with an edge, which is why at least McLeod and restricted free agent Nathan Bastian will be back. BMW member Miles Wood might not. He is unrestricted.

Don’t expect Tomas Tatar to return. He had a good regular season putting up 48 points with a plus-41 rating. Aside from a big goal against the Rangers in the deciding seventh game, he was quiet. He wasn’t available on breakup day.

Fitzgerald has an interesting decision on Ryan Graves. The defenseman had a good season finishing a plus-34 with 26 points. He was good in the first round, making some key defensive plays, including saving a goal. He worked well with John Marino. Perhaps Fitzgerald’s best pickup. But Graves struggled with the Canes’ speed. If he leaves, Luke Hughes could play with Marino next season. He had his best game of his young career in the elimination game, logging 25:02 with four shots.

It’s possible the Devils could go with a younger back end. They could have both Hughes and recent 2022 first round pick Simon Nemec in the top six. Jonas Siegenthaler, Dougie Hamilton, Marino, and Kevin Bahl could be the mainstays. Damon Severson will likely leave. Brendan Smith is the extra.

The best series of the second round has been between the Kraken and Stars. Once again, Seattle has proven to be a tough four line team that can play with tempo. They’re very resilient. Dave Hakstol deserves a lot of credit for that. The former Flyers bench boss has proven he can turn an expansion team into a playoff contender in only their second year.

It helps to have battle-tested leaders such as former Lightning Stanley Cup winner Yanni Gourde. He’s been superb. In their 6-3 win last night to force a Game 7, he scored a goal and assisted on another. Jordan Eberle had a pair of goals with an assist. He’s playing hungrier playoff style hockey. The kind he rarely did with the Islanders.

They’ve gotten big contributions from Adam Larsson, who looks like the player the Devils once selected fourth overall. He finishes checks, blocks shots, and chips in offensively. All while playing strong defensively. It took until his third team to become the defenseman they thought he’d be. No Kraken plays more than Larsson.

Along with proven vets, Jaden Schwartz, Justin Schultz, Vince Dunn, Jamie Oleksiak, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Brandon Tanev, and Alex Wennberg, the Kraken are a team that does it by committee. Boasting former Nashville first round pick Eeli Tolvanen, and 2021 second pick Matty Beniers, they also have young talent who are getting it done. Tolvanen recorded his first three-point game of his young postseason career. After a quiet first round, Beniers has picked it up with five points over the last four games. The Calder candidate is a complete player who can play in any situation. Only 20, the former Michigan standout is a future captain in waiting.

Even Tye Kartye has become a factor this round. The undrafted player has three goals and two assists in the playoffs. He fired a pea by Jake Oettinger last night to give Seattle a 3-1 lead. He definitely can fire it. Kartye looks like a good find.

It’ll fall on Philipp Grubauer to again perform like he did when he beat his former team in Round One. He’s capable of making the big stops. We’ll see if he can backstop the Kraken to another upset.

The question is, can the Kraken again win a road Game 7 like they did against the Avalanche? All the pressure is on the Stars. It’s the biggest game of the young career of Oettinger. He was chased from Saturday’s game after giving up four goals on 18 shots. However, Peter DeBoer indicated that the team didn’t give him any help. That was true. However, Oettinger must deliver tomorrow night to get the Stars back to the Western Conference Final.

They’ve gotten a terrific playoffs from Roope Hintz. His 18 points are tied with Leon Draisaitl for second in scoring behind Connor McDavid. Hintz centers Jason Robertson and Joe Pavelski, who’s scored eight goals in the series since returning from a concussion. He has magic hands in front. What he can do is incredible. He had a four-goal game in a 5-4 overtime loss to Seattle back in Game 1. Gourde won it.

Robertson doesn’t have a goal in the second round. Obviously, the Stars need him to deliver on Monday. He is second in scoring with 12 points. But they’re not going in.

Max Domi has been a great addition. The gritty forward has 11 points in the postseason. He’s fit in well under DeBoer. Domi is one of those types who will go to the dirty areas and can make plays with the puck. His performance will earn him a nice payday this summer.

Jamie Benn still produces. He and Tyler Seguin remain two of the leaders in Dallas. We’ll see if their experience can help the Stars advance. The Stars also boast rookie Wyatt Johnston and Mason Marchment. Johnston has a knack for the net. Marchment plays bigger than his size.

Miro Heiskanen is a tower of strength anchoring the blue line. How good is he? The Norris snub logs huge minutes while matching up against opposing scoring lines. He also has nine assists. There isn’t much he can’t do. He really got robbed by blind writers on the league’s best defenseman. He’s elite.

The Stars rely on Jani Hakanpaa, Esa Lindell, and savvy vet Ryan Suter for big minutes. They play a good defensive system under DeBoer. They’ll obviously try to slow down the Kraken, who are at their best when the pace is frenetic. Whoever can impose their will should prevail.

The Oilers find themselves facing elimination later tonight against the Golden Knights. They’ve gotten the production from McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. However, most of the damage has come on their almost automatic power play. All three goals in a frustrating 4-3 loss the other night came via the man-advantage. However, they gave up two power play goals to Vegas on a major. The Knights were better when they had to be at even strength.

While McDavid continues to wow fans with, did you see that moments like his one-handed shorthanded goal along with a blow by past three Vegas players for a ridiculous goal in Game Five, they need more from the supporting cast. Evander Kane hasn’t been the same player since returning. Outside of his clutch tying goal in Game 4 last round against LA, he hasn’t done enough. Kane probably is still banged up.

Edmonton knows they can count on McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, and power play specialist Evan Bouchard for most of the offense. They’ll need more from role players Klim Kostin, Kailer Yamamoto, Nick Bjugstad, Ryan McLeod, and Warren Foegle.

Mattias Ekholm has been a good addition on the back end. He always flew under the radar in Nashville. He provides a steady defensive presence to a defense that has roavers Bouchard and Darnell Nurse, who will return following a bogus one-game suspension for fighting at the conclusion of Game Four. It was utterly ridiculous. He didn’t instigate the fight.

How Nurse received the same one game as Alex Pietrangelo, who deliberately whacked Draisaitl with a slash that led to the fracas, makes no sense. It’s another epic fail by the Department of Player Safety. Pietrangelo should’ve received multiple games for that. Instead, he’ll also be back for Vegas when they try to wrap up the series. Save the complaints, Pietrangelo. The constant whining doesn’t justify attempting to injure a star player at the end of a lopsided game.

For better or worse, it’s Stuart Skinner in goal for the Oilers. They must play like they did in Games 2 and 4. A complete effort without losing their discipline.

The Golden Knights have gotten an inspired series from Jack Eichel. The former Sabre is playing his best hockey. He has lit it up in the three wins by posting three goals and five assists for eight points. Most of it has come at five-on-five. It’s exactly the kind of hockey he’s capable of. He leads Vegas with 13 points in the postseason.

Mark Stone has come back to score and set up big goals. He knows how to play in these pressure packed games. Chandler Stephenson remains a good playmaker. Old guard William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault remain key players. Ivan Barbashev has solidified the scoring since coming over from St. Louis.

The blue line boasts Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez, Zach Whitecloud, Brayden McNabb, and Nicolas Hague. The balance allows the Knights to have an advantage defensively.

They’re also a better forechecking team. Even former Ranger Brett Howden knows how to play playoff hockey. What’s Artemi Panarin’s problem?

It still falls on Adin Hill to get Vegas back to the Conference Finals. After Laurent Brossoit went down early in the series, it’s Hill, who’s the goalie trying to beat cyborgs McDavid and Draisaitl. Hill has been good so far.

Body Checks

Would it have killed ESPN to schedule tonight’s Game 6 in Edmonton at an earlier time than 10 ET? On a Sunday night, that’s ridiculous. Guess that Cardinals/Red Sox classic MLB match-up on Mother’s Day really matters. Priorities.

Assuming both Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe lose their jobs in Toronto, who do they select to replace them? I’m still not buying the rumor that both could wind up as a package deal in Pittsburgh. Not when Mike Sullivan is a better coach with two Cups. It isn’t his fault the Pens missed the playoffs. They finally got rid of Ron Hextall, who probably was working as a double secret agent for the Flyers.

If Sullivan stays in Pittsburgh, that eliminates the best option for the Rangers. Assuming they want to go that route, Sullivan is better than retreads Darryl Sutter and Peter Laviolette. The idea of either is scary. They’d be better off considering promoting Hartford coach Kris Knoblauch. Andrew Brunette could be available. He merits consideration.

Earlier this week, the Blackhawks won the NHL Draft Lottery. I already voiced my displeasure due to the NHL going light on the organization for the Kyle Beach scandal. It’s unbelievable that they didn’t lose a first round pick. Instead, they’ll get rewarded with a franchise player in Connor Bedard. Best of luck to him on a mess of a roster that needs major overhauling.

It’s kind of ironic that the Eastern Conference Final will feature former Rangers. You have Marc Staal on one side while Jesper Fast, Derek Stepan, Brady Skjei, and backup Antti Raanta are on the other side. One way or another, the Rangers will be represented in the Stanley Cup Finals. What if Vegas makes it with Howden? Everyone was so quick to toss him aside. He plays exactly like an energy guy should. His former team lacked energy. They looked D deficient.

How soon will ESPN play up the battle of Staal Brothers? Hopefully, it won’t be as maddening as listening to Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti. Every time they played each other, the broadcast became insufferable. MSG went from having the best in the business featuring a prime Rosen with John Davidson to having one of the worst. Don’t tell them.

Is Paul Bissonnette still crying over his Leafs? He’s entertaining on TNT. But the open rooting for the Leafs was too much. His Panthers imitation is funny. The NHL On TNT crew is excellent. Especially when Henrik Lundqvist joins them. He is superb at breaking down the goalie play. Even in retirement, he’s still a King.

Regarding the stick hold by Radko Gudas leading up to the overtime winner scored by Nick Cousins. It was hard to tell at real speed. Imagine being a ref on that play. Gudas made a superb defensive play to break up a Toronto rush. Then, wisely drove the net to give Cousins enough time to toe drag and make a great shot to end the Leafs’ season.

9-17. That’s the Maple Leafs record on home ice with Matthews and Marner in the postseason. They went 2-5 this Spring, including 0-3 versus the Panthers. Florida is 6-1 on the road.

An idea for the Rangers to help address the lack of grit. Sign Domi and Vladislav Namestnikov. Re-sign Tyler Motte. Bridge Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller. If they can’t get Domi, adding Namestnikov and Noel Acciari would work. Jimmy Vesey shouldn’t be a regular. His extension made no sense. There was no rush for a role player that could be easily replaced by someone in Hartford.

Here’s hoping Brennan Othmann isn’t ruined.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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1 Response to HARD HITS: Leafs’ latest playoff failure leaves more questions for Toronto

  1. hasan4978 says:

    Yeah a 10 PM start on a Sunday night would even make the NBA blush. Supposedly the NHL wanted ESPN to have an 8 PM start and put the baseball on ESPN2 and they refused. I guess that shows where their priorities are when a regular season baseball game against two nondescript teams is more valuable than McDavid in an elimination game.

    Liked by 1 person

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