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2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Top Guns of the Toronto Maple Leafs Shut Down, So Far, by Florida

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Matthew Tkachuk, left, puts Toronto’s Mitch Marner into the boards as teammates Carter Verhaeghe and Sasha Barkov converge on Auston Matthews during the second period of Game 3 on Sunday night. // Photo by Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

SUNRISE — One of the keys for the Florida Panthers to have success in their playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs was to limit Toronto’s four high-end scorers.

After the four ran roughshod through the regular season and in the opening round against Tampa Bay, that was certainly a tall ask.

But completely shutting all four of them out through the first three games?

It is no wonder Florida has a 3-0 series lead with the chance to end it tonight against  Toronto then, is it?

“I haven’t scored either so I don’t know what the big deal is,’’ Matthew Tkachuk said with a grin.

He can joke all he wants with a 3-0 series lead.

No one is laughing in Toronto.

The quartet of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander are known as the ‘Core Four’ and they are the drivers of the Toronto offense.

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In the opening round series against the Lightning, the four combined for 13 goals and 34 points in Toronto’s 6-game win.

Against the Panthers, the numbers have dropped dramatically — and the Leafs are on life support because of it.

Of the four, only Matthews has more than one point.

None of them have a goal.

They have totaled four points, all on assists, in the first three games of the series.

“If we’re going to end up on the right side of it,’’ Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said, “it’s because all those guys you mentioned who are key players and play as much — or more — than anyone are doing good things shift-to-shift. They’re managing the game well, managing the puck well, they’re competing, they’re minimizing mistakes. And they are capitalizing on their opportunities.

“Let’s not get distracted from the things that really matter. Those guys carried us offensively through the Tampa series and came through at clutch times and scored big goals in big moments. We’re here playing largely on the backs of how they came through for us in those moments.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice was asked after Florida’s overtime win in Game 3 what his team was doing to so affectively take those four out of the series.

Maurice said give the credit to goalie Sergei Bobrovsky — and he certainly deserves a lot of the kudos through this three-game shutout of the Toronto Four.

But Florida’s defensive play in not giving those four as many good looks as they are used to — and, limiting their power play opportunities — has been key.

Florida’s defensemen and forwards have been smothering.

“They are really skilled so you want to take away time and space from them,” Florida defenseman Gus Forsling said. “If you give them time and space, you’ll see they are great. We want to shut them down pretty early.’’

Maurice said in watching the tapes of the games, those four have been doing more than what has hit the scoresheet. Indeed, all four have had their moments in the first three games from Nylander in Game 2 to Matthews ringing a few off the post.

“I go through the video, and I don’t feel that,” Maurice said. “We gave them five 2-on-1s in the first seven minutes of that game; the second half of Game 2. There is a lot there. It is just inches inside and outside the posts for those players. … Each team could have gone on goal runs and it hasn’t happened.”

Said Tkachuk: “Those guys are very dangerous players and have been their whole careers. Those are guys we really have to keep an eye on and limit as much as possible. Great players and have been for a while. We’re focusing on them and preparing for them each and every game.”

The failures of Toronto’s highly paid forwards in this series has been the talk of Canada for the past few days.

Marner, for one, sounds sick of hearing about it.

“I think we have been saying the whole time that we don’t care what you guys say, we don’t listen to you outside of this locker room,” he told reporters at FLA Live Arena on Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re just focused on ourselves and this group in here. … We’re the leaders and want to be the ones to step our foot forward, everyone in this room wants to do that. We all know that we have a lot better to play, especially us.”

For the Panthers, they just hope this dry streak is going to continue at least one more game.

It certainly will not go on forever.

Eventually one — or four — of them will catch fire and set things aflame.

“As leaders, we want to step up and be there for the team,’’ said Matthews, who has two assists to lead the ‘Core Four’ in scoring this series.

When asked about the pressure on them now, Matthews said “just go out there and play hockey. That’s what we have been doing our whole life.

“Can’t really focus on the outside noise; what you’re saying, what everyone is saying. It doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is how we approach this game and the mental side of it. Come in with a purpose and focusing on just one game here.”

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (ATL2) AT FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 3 (Panthers Lead 2-0)

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