SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers had a golden opportunity Wednesday night. A win over the Maple Leafs would have squashed this second-round playoff series in just four games.
While coach Paul Maurice was giving a chipper press conference to a room filled with Toronto media after the game, the Florida locker room was quiet and, for the most part, empty.
No team in these playoffs have swept a team and the Panthers were the only team in the second round holding a 3-0 series lead.
Losing one game is not the end of the world for Florida — although winning on Wednesday could have made things so much easier on itself.
“We lost a game today,” Maurice said. “That happens in the playoffs. I think everyone has, so far. We get to play the next one.”
The Panthers around in the postgame room did give plenty of credit to the Leafs for being “desperate” as Brandon Montour said, or simply being a “good team” as goalie Sergei Bobrovsky said.
Only this was a game the Panthers could have had.
They did not play all that well. Truthfully, neither did the Leafs.
In the end, it was a 1-goal game. On paper, it looked close and could have gone either way. And that is true.
It just did not appear that way.
Toronto was starting a rookie goalie making his first postseason start. Instead of peppering Joseph Wall, the Panthers seemed cautious after their initial push in the opening 5-7 minutes failed to get the desired results.
It was not until they were down 2-0 in the second half of the third period where they finally resumed picking up the pace.
Florida ended with 25 shots on Woll; Give credit to the Leafs for blocking 22 which would have come his way.
That was impressive. Toronto, for sure, was the more desperate team. Two of the four players who were under a lot of heat to produce did so as William Nylander and Mitch Marner each scored their first goals of this series.
The Panthers had no such players under the glare of the spotlight and it showed.
Toronto was also very active with their sticks, clogging up lanes and preventing Florida from sustaining much of anything offensively — despite the Panthers dominating possession time.
While there was some excitement with big hits (most notably from Radko Gudas on David Kampf in the corner) and some extracurriculars in the final seconds, the Panthers did not seem to have that certain something on Wednesday night.
Now the series goes back to Toronto.
That means another 3-hour flight north, another couple trips through customs.
All that could have been avoided.
Toronto was playing for its season, sure.
Now, the Panthers have to be the team ready to put the hammer down.
“We need to bring a desperate game,’’ Brandon Montour said. “Get some rest, recovery and be ready to go.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
PANTHERS (WC2) AT TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (ATL2)
GAME 5 (Florida Leads 3-1)
- When: Friday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- First Round Schedule — Game 1: Florida 4, @Toronto 2; Game 2: Florida 3, @Toronto 2; Game 3: @Florida 3, Toronto 2 (OT); Game 4: Toronto 2, @Florida 1; Game 5: Friday at Toronto (TNT), 7; Game 6*: Sunday, May 14 at Florida (TBA); Game 7*:May 16 at Toronto (TNT). (*) – If Necessary
- How They Got Here: Toronto d. Tampa Bay 4-2; Florida d. Boston 4-3
- Season Series (Toronto won 3-1): Maple Leafs 5, @Panthers 4 OT (Jan. 17); @Maple Leafs 6, Panthers 2 (Mar. 23); Panthers 3, @Maple Leafs 2 OT (March 29); Maple Leafs 2, @Panthers 1 OT (April 10)
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Toronto leads 48-36-7, 7 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting