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2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Impossible? Maple Leafs Try to Rally From 3-0 Hole to Panthers



Panthers leafs
The Florida Panthers hold a 3-0 series lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference semifinals with Game 4 tonight in Sunrise. // Photo @GeorgeRichards

SUNRISE — The Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team in NHL history to be down 3-0 in a playoff series and come back to win it. They certainly would like to do it again against the Florida Panthers.

It is obviously a tall challenge, one rarely accomplished in the history of pro sports.

Coming into Wednesday night, there have been 204 NHL playoff series in which a team held a commanding 3-0 lead; only four have beat the odds and come back to win.

The 1942 Maple Leafs did it against Detroit for the Stanley Cup.

It did not happen again until 1975 when the New York Islanders rallied and beat the Penguins in the quarterfinals.

The other two teams were the 2010 Flyers over Boston (East semifinals) and 2014 Kings over San Jose in the opening round.

No NBA team has ever come back from being down 3-0 and only one — the curse-breaking Red Sox of 2004 against the Yankees — has done so in baseball.

“We don’t even look at it like it is 3-0,’’ Matthew Tkachuk said. “We’re just trying to win that game. They have played some really good hockey in this series, but so have we. It has been a really tight series.”

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The Panthers obviously hold the hammer in this series as they have four chances to win one game and advance to the Eastern Conference finals against either New Jersey or Carolina.

The Leafs have to win the equivalence of four Game 7s.

“We have a good group and there is lots of belief in this group that we can win one game,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said on Monday.

“That’s where you have to start, right? You look at the whole terrain and it is overwhelming when you look at it and there are a lot of things working against you, obviously. You have to start with one, build positive momentum and go from there.”

It is not like the Maple Leafs are not used to having playoff winning streaks of their own.

In the opening round, Toronto lost Game 1 at home to the Lightning before winning the next three games to take a 3-1 series lead.

Toronto lost Game 5 at home but then took the series with a Game 6 win in overtime.

In this series, things have been tight.

Aside from Florida’s 4-2 win in the opener, the other two games have been one-goal affairs.

The Panthers had to hold on for dear life in Game 2 before winning Game 3 on Sam Reinhart’s wraparound winner in overtime.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best hockey,” Keefe said. “We have been in these past two games, were right there and were one shot away. We’re not that far off. We definitely have the ability to put it together.

“We won three games in a row in the Tampa series. We have a lot of belief in our team, but there’s a good team on the other side. It is going to make it hard. It is meant to be hard. Anything worth achieving is going to be hard.”

Florida also knows something about stringing together a winning streak in the middle of the playoffs.

In the opening round, the Panthers were on the verge of elimination down 3-1 going into Game 5 in Boston. They have not lost since, their six-game playoff winning streak setting a franchise record.

The Panthers are relaxed — as well they should be.

When the series started, the pressure was on the Maple Leafs.

Based on what is swirling around this team right now, it is only becoming a heavier weight around their necks.

Like the Leafs, the Panthers know a series is not over until the handshake line says it is. They may be loose, but they are focused on the task at hand.

The Panthers may have a good number of players from Ontario, but they do not want to fly there on Thursday for a Game 5.

“We’re a loose group in the sense that we’re in the moment and not letting anything get in the way of our thinking,” Tkachuk said. “We come to each game, do everything we can to win. We prepare right. We’re not overthinking it, not taking it too easy. We just want to win the game. … We’re just trying to enjoy this. It’s a big stage and it’s fun.’’

Said Keefe: “The Panthers are obviously very comfortable right now. It is our job to make them a little less comfortable. … We’re going to do everything we can to have our group ready to get a win on Wednesday and bring it back to Toronto.”

GAME 4 (Florida Leads 3-0)

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