When the going got tough, the Florida Panthers stuck to their identity and ground out a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs to take a commanding 2-0 series lead in their second-round playoff series.
The Panthers found themselves down two goals after being utterly dominated by the Maple Leafs in the first 10 minutes of the game.
Only the resolve they built up over their three-month grind to the postseason stuck with them.
The Panthers now lead the best-of-7 series 2-0 with the next two games on home ice at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise.
It is the first 2-0 playoff series lead for the Panthers since the first-round in 1996 against Boston.
Winning the first two games on enemy ice in a series the Panthers were, again, underdogs in, is the only thing that counts.
“We work hard, we believe in each other,’’ said Sasha Barkov, who tied the score at 2 just 19 seconds into the second period. “Two games, two wins. It’s great. We have some things we need to get better at, to work on. But it’s a good start for us. Now we got home and work even harder.”
Florida killed off a big penalty which helped swing the tide and it gave a boost of energy to its hard, forechecking style of play.
Anton Lundell put Florida on the board with 9:47 to go in the first period and Toronto appeared to be under siege for a good portion of the night from that point on.
“Our forecheck is not as easy to stop as it looks. It is what we are built to do,” coach Paul Maurice said. “We have these kinds of players that are built to be good at this.”
Once the puck dropped to start the second period, the Panthers pounced on the forecheck quickly and cashed in just as fast.
Barkov tied the game 19 seconds into the period after Anthony Duclair hounded the Maple Leafs off the opening faceoff to force a turnover and set the captain up in the slot.
Eetu Luostarinen forced another turnover off the ensuing draw, which helped Gus Forsling give Florida the lead 47 seconds later off a cross-ice feed from Matthew Tkachuk.
Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe was speechless when asked about his team’s turnovers early in the second.
“Disappointing. Baffling, frankly,’’ he said. “We didn’t make those mistakes one time in the last series.”
But they did on Thursday — and that was it for the scoring.
The Panthers continued to send wave after wave and pinned the Maple Leafs in their own zone for a large portion of the game.
“We are playing in straight lines, finishing checks but also having good sticks,” Matthew Tkachuk said.
“We are not just running around like animals right now. We are just trying to play to our identity and what makes us successful is getting in on the forecheck, getting a bump and trying to get the puck back.”
It was hard for Florida to contain Toronto, but when they broke through the pressure, a mixture of solid defensive plays and an incredible outing from Sergei Bobrovsky helped seal the deal.
When Bobrovsky dropped his stick with Jake McCabe winding up for a shot with 8:40 to go in regulation, Tkachuk tracked the shot and dove to block it with his hand.
With 4:52 left, William Nylander blew past Marc Staal to create a 1-on-1 opportunity against Bobrovsky but he came up with the pad save and Brandon Montour cleared the dangerous rebound from the front of the net.
All the while, Florida’s forwards made big plays on the defensive end while pushing the puck up the ice to create pressure the other way.
In a one-goal game, moments like that are important and the Panthers are well aware of that.
They have been perfecting this style of play for the last three months with their playoff lives on the line for nearly every bit of it.
“It’s the playoffs, you have to play that way, and it feels like we’ve been able to find a game that works right now,” Lundell said.
“We just need to keep going and playing our game and trust that we are going to get some chances and succeed.”
The Panthers did not start the game how they wanted to — allowing the Maple Leafs to take control early — but once they got a handle on it, their style of play proved to be dominant.
Heading into Game 3 in Sunrise, the Panthers are looking to continue to bottle up Toronto’s lethal attack and keep the pressure on to take a stranglehold on the series.
“Against a team with that much skill, they had some great chances and some great looks. Probably more than we would have liked,” Tkachuk said.
“But I thought for stretches in that game, we played exactly like the way we want to play. So we got to try to do that for a full 60.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (ATL2) AT FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 3 (Panthers Lead 2-0)
- When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV: TBS
- 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: Sunday at Florida, 6:30 (TBS); Game 4: Wednesday at Florida, 7 (ESPN); Game 5*:Friday, May 12 at Toronto (TNT); 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