For the first time in 19 years, the Toronto Maple Leafs were set to play in a second round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was a matchup that I’m confident not many people had in their playoff bracket; Leafs vs. Panthers. The Leafs defeated the powerhouse that is the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games, while the Florida Panthers scratched and clawed their way back from being down 3-1 in their series against the Boston Bruins to take the series 4-3. Before the teams even took to the ice, there was an absolute buzz ringing through Scotiabank Arena, and then when the Leafs made their way onto the ice, the crowd took it to another level.
Here are Tonight’s Three Stars:
Tonights First Star
Matthew Tkachuk – Matthew Tkachuk was an absolute force against the Boston Bruins, and he picked up right where he left off to start this series against the Leafs. In seven games against the Bruins, Tkachuk put up a total of 11 points. In game one tonight? Tkachuk had three assists, three shots, one drawn penalty, and NINE hits. Just an absolute monster performance from the Panthers MVP. His first assist came on the opening goal of the game just 9:25 into the first period as Nick Cousins gave the Panthers a 1-0 lead. His second assist came on a goal from Sam Bennett, who extended the Panthers lead to 2-0 at the 7:58 mark of the second period. Finally, his third assist came on a goal from Brandon Montour, who has been an absolute force on the Panthers backend, to make it 4-2 for the Panthers at 12:24 of the third period. Despite getting absolutely rocked by Luke Schenn and Jake McCabe, it did not phase Tkachuk whatsoever, and he just continued to play his game and dominate every shift he was on the ice.
If the Leafs are going to regain home-ice advantage in this series, they are going to have to figure out a way to contain Matthew Tkachuk as best as they can because this guy is on an absolute mission.
Tonight’s Second Star
Sergei Bobrovsky – Right out of the gate, you could tell Bobrovsky was absolutely on the case tonight. He was dialed in, and you could tell it was going to take something special to beat him in this one. The Leafs fired 36 shots at Bobrovsky, and he stopped 34 of them, giving him a 0.944 save percentage, outstanding from the 34-year-old veteran. Despite giving the Leafs two power plays in the first seven minutes of the game, the Panthers somehow outshot the Leafs 13-9 in the opening frame; Bobrovsky stopped all nine shots he faced, which definitely gave his team some confidence. The second period was dominated in large part by the Leafs as they outshot the Panthers 13-6, and they managed to beat Bobrovsky with two of those shots to tie the game up 2-2. Several saves in tight and down low, as well as going post to post to make some ten-bell saves too. In the third period, the Leafs continued to pepper Bobrovsky, but he shut the door once again and stopped all 14 shots he faced in the final frame leading the Panthers to a 4-2 victory to take a 1-0 series lead. Bobrovsky’s biggest save came as Michael Bunting found a streaking William Nylander and made the cross-crease pass, but Bobrovsky managed to somehow get across to rob the Swede.
Tonight’s Third Star
Matthew Knies – Despite this only being Knies’ ninth NHL game, three in the regular season and six in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the kid has been a force for the Leafs in every game. With each passing game, he gains more confidence and has a larger impact as time passes. He was around the puck all night in this one, and you could just tell he was finally going to break through with his first career NHL goal, and he did just that at the 8:09 mark of the second period to cut the Panthers 2-0 lead in half.
There is no denying the growing chemistry between Leafs superstar Auston Matthews and their rookie phenom Matthew Knies. It is very easy to tell that Knies has studied Matthews’ game in great detail because he has so many similarities in his game when it comes to the way he skates, the way he creates space with his stick handling, and of course, they are built very similarly in terms of size.
The Leafs will look to respond and even up the series on Thursday in game two. This isn’t an unfamiliar situation for the Leafs, as they dropped game one against the Lightning in the first round as well. I’d make the argument that they were the better team in this one. It just so happened that the Panthers capitalized on their chances while the Leafs didn’t.
For more Leafs news and in-game tweets, follow me on Twitter @mikethefanatic! Also, be sure to check out The Leafs Late Night Podcast wherever you listen to your podcasts!