Stanley Cup playoffs: Maple Leafs eliminated by Panthers in five games
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, May 12, 2023 8:34AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 13, 2023 12:08AM EDT
TORONTO - The Maple Leafs are out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Nick Cousins scored at 15:32 of overtime and Sergei Bobrovsky made 50 saves as the Florida Panthers downed Toronto 3-2 on Friday to win the teams' second-round playoff series 4-1.
Cousins buried his second goal of the playoffs off the rush shortside on Leafs rookie Joseph Woll in the extra period to send his team to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1996.
Aaron Ekblad and Carter Verhaeghe, with a goal and an assist each, provided the rest of the offence for the Panthers.
Florida - the team with the fewest points to qualify for the post-season - took all three games in Toronto and improved to 6-1 on the road this spring after also upsetting the record-setting Boston Bruins. The Panthers will meet the Carolina Hurricanes in the third round after they got past the New Jersey Devils in five games.
Morgan Rielly and William Nylander replied for the Leafs, who advanced in the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades when they topped the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
Woll made 41 stops in his first home playoff start for Toronto, which faces an uncertain off-season despite its breakthrough against Tampa, after making 24 saves in Wednesday's Game 4 that avoided the sweep.
Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas doesn't have a contract beyond June 30, while there have also been rumblings about the future of head coach Sheldon Keefe.
Nylander and Auston Matthews both have one year remaining on their contracts and can sign extensions as of July 1, while fellow star forward Mitch Marner's no-movement clause kicks in the same day.
Toronto's high-powered offence - including the so-called “Core Four” of Matthews, Nylander, Marner and John Tavares - scored just three times in the series for a team that totalled just 14 goals over its final seven playoff games, including a paltry 10 against the Panthers.
The Leafs finished the post-season 1-5 at home.
Down 2-1 in the third period without much happening, Nylander found an equalizer that materialized out of nothing.
The smooth-skating winger took a pass from John Tavares in stride and beat Bobrovsky from a tight angle upstairs with 4:37 left in regulation for his fourth to spark wild celebrations inside a frothing Scotiabank Arena - and the chaotic street party outside in Maple Leaf Square.
Florida went up 1-0 on a power play at 3:31 of the opening period when Ekblad blasted a one-timer for his first on a shot that handcuffed Woll to pull the plug on an electric rink after the Toronto netminder made a flurry of early stops.
The Leafs pushed back and had a couple of terrific chances on a pair of man advantages, but couldn't solve Bobrovsky.
Verhaeghe then buried his fifth on a one-timer of his own at 16:18 after Toronto defenceman Timothy Liljegren fumbled the puck at his blue line to make it 2-0.
The Leafs found some life midway through the second and cut the Panthers' lead in half at 7:50 when Rielly's point shot made its way through a crowd in front for his fourth.
Toronto appeared to tie things with 2:49 remaining in the period when Rielly looked to have pushed the puck over the line in close off the rush. The call on the ice of no goal stood following a long video - the officials deemed the play dead prior to the puck crossing the line - which prompted some fans to litter the ice with drinks, water bottles and rally towels.
Marner hit the post on a shot that took a deflection shortly after play resumed as the Leafs headed to the locker room with just 20 minutes to salvage their season.
The home side desperately tried to find an equalizer as the clock drained away in the third - and Nylander provided before Florida broke Leaf hearts in OT.
Friday marked exactly 17 years since Panthers head coach Paul Maurice was named to the same post with the Leafs. He would last two seasons in Toronto before getting fired following the 2007-08 campaign.
Florida winger Matthew Tkachuk was named shortly before puck drop as one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. The other nominees are Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Bruins forward David Pastrnak.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023.