The Maple Leafs entered Wednesday with their backs firmly pressed against the wall.
Sheldon Keefe’s team responded with what he described as their best effort of the season – one peppered with desperation and urgency – to keep its flicking hopes alive.
It was only one night, but Toronto isn’t done yet.
Mitch Marner had a goal and an assist, rookie Joseph Woll made 24 saves in his first playoff start, and the Leafs downed the Florida Panthers 2-1 in a must-win Game 4 to cut their deficit to 3-1 in the teams’ second-round series.
“There was no real letup,” said Keefe, Toronto’s head coach. “Unbelievable job by our guys.”
William Nylander, who along with Marner snapped a seven-game goal drought, also scored for the Leafs.
Toronto had two days to stew after a sub-par effort from top-to-bottom in Game 3 – including the club’s so-called “Core Four” of Marner, Nylander, Auston Matthews and John Tavares, who had combined for zero goals in the series entering Wednesday – that pushed the Original Six franchise to the brink.
“They care deeply â€¦ and because of that you give that type of effort,” Keefe said of Game 4. “They didn’t want to go quietly. That’s what we’ve been talking about – we’re gonna leave it all out there.
“From the coach’s side of it, now you look and say, ‘That’s the standard.”’
Sam Reinhart replied for the Panthers. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 23 shots.
Florida saw its franchise-record playoff winning streak end at six contests, but has three more cracks at knocking off Toronto on the heels of accomplishing the same feat against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in seven games after trailing that series 3-1.
“We lost a game,” said head coach Paul Maurice, who was in a jovial mood with reporters at his press conference.
“That happens in the playoffs.”
Woll became the first rookie goaltender to win his first post-season start for the Leafs since Felix Potvin in 1993.
“Any opportunity I get with this team is pretty special,” he said. “We were challenged to leave it all out there.”
Looking to become just the fifth team in NHL history to climb out of a 3-0 hole, Toronto gets at least a 48-hour reprieve and will host Game 5 of the best-of-seven matchup Friday at Scotiabank Arena. Game 6, if necessary, would be Sunday back in South Florida.
So has the pressure shifted ever so slightly to the Panthers?
“Who cares?” Marner said. “We’re about ourselves in here. We’re focused on ourselves.
“We’ve got to keep this effort up.”
The Leafs caught a big break at 3:28 of the second period on their first power play for Wednesday’s opening goal.
Toronto winger Michael Bunting tried to put the puck behind Florida’s net, but it went off the referee in the corner and caromed to Nylander, who jabbed a shot against the post, off Bobrovsky and in for his third goal of the playoffs and a 1-0 lead.
Woll, who got the nod ahead of veteran Matt Murray after Ilya Samsonov was injured in Game 3, held the fort at the other end before Tavares had a terrific opportunity to make it 2-0 late in the second, but Bobrovsky was there to deny the Toronto captain – just as he did in Game 2.
A lightning rod for criticism after that forgettable Game 3, Marner made it 2-0 at 10:03 of the third when his shot from distance through a crowd fooled Bobrovsky for his third.
Reinhart, who scored in overtime of Game 3, made it 2-1 with 7:47 left on a Florida power play.
Keefe then called timeout to settle his bench and take some air out of the crowd at FLA Live Arena.
“My mindset doesn’t change, regardless of what the situation is,” Woll said. “That’s the little game within the game I play in my mind.”
Florida pulled Bobrovsky and had some zone time late, but the visitors held on to force the series back to Toronto.
“It’s gonna take even more than what it did tonight,” Nylander said of Game 5. “Winning one here is obviously a step on our way. Don’t want to get too high. It’s just one win.
“Long ways to go.”
The underdog Panthers – 19 points back of the Leafs in the regular-season standings and the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed after claiming the second wild-card spot – took the first three games, including two in Toronto by 4-2 and 3-2 margins before picking up Sunday’s 3-2 OT victory.
With the result Wednesday, the Leafs delayed the start to a summer of inevitable questions about coaching, management and roster construction that would have come with a disastrous second-round showing on the heels of the organization’s best playoff moment in nearly two decades
Toronto finally broke through in the post-season for the first time since 2004 – including six straight series losses for Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Morgan Rielly – when the club got past the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round.
All those good feelings, including wild street celebrations in the hockey-crazed city, withered on the vine in less than two weeks with three straight losses.
The climb remains steep and daunting, but the Leafs have a bit of hope.
“Great response, but it’s one response,” Keefe said. “It’s the required one. It was the only game on the schedule. Now we’ve got another one on the schedule.
“We wanted to bring this thing back to Toronto. We’re thrilled that we’ve done that.”