SUNRISE, Fla. – John Tavares stood in the middle of a sombre locker room trying to explain another loss where Toronto’s stars – himself included – were unable to make a difference.
Mitch Marner was up next. Auston Matthews followed right after.
There wasn’t any anger or defiance from a trio that hasn’t been nearly good enough in the Maple Leafs’ second-round playoff series.
Now they have no margin for error. And a steep, near-impossible climb.
Sam Reinhart scored at 3:02 of overtime Sunday as the Florida Panthers defeated Toronto 3-2 to take a commanding 3-0 lead and push the Leafs to the brink of elimination.
“Tight hockey game,” Tavares said. “Got to find a way to capitalize a little more. They’re defending very tight in and around their net. We just didn’t come out on the right side of it and make the play needed to get us the result.”
“It sucks,” Marner added later. “But gotta forget about it quickly, be pissed off. Now it’s do or die.”
Tavares, Marner, Matthews and William Nylander haven’t scored in the series as Toronto’s high-powered attack has gone dry with just 10 goals over its last five games.
“I don’t think we can get frustrated,” Marner said. “Once you get frustrated, then things don’t really go well.”
“We’ve had some good chances and good stretches,” Matthews said. “A couple posts, stuff’s just not falling â€¦ just can’t get discouraged.”
The Panthers, who squeaked into the playoffs after winning last season’s Presidents’ Trophy, are now one victory from the Eastern Conference final.
Reinhart grabbed the puck behind the net on the winning sequence and wrapped it around on a surprised Joseph Woll for his fifth goal of the playoffs.
“We’ve had a lot of guys stepping up at big moments,” said the Panthers centre. “We’re all trying to execute the same game plan. We’re just getting that much more confidence with it in tight situations.”
Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe had the other goals for Florida, which won the first two games on the road and can close the best-of-seven matchup with a sweep Wednesday back at FLA Live Arena.
Sergei Bobrovsky made 22 saves for the Panthers, who are up 3-0 in a series for the first time since 1996.
“Relishing the opportunity,” Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad, who added two assists, said of his group’s mentality. “Live in the moment.”
Erik Gustafsson and Sam Lafferty replied for Toronto, which would host a potential Game 5 on Friday.
“Today was the real pressure,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “The next game, just go out and play. You gotta get a win. This game could have gone either way. Some missed opportunity for us here, just like Game 2 (was a) missed opportunity.
“Those things add up â€¦ but we’ll come ready to play and look to get our one win and then you’re back home to get another.”
Woll stopped 18 shots after replacing Ilya Samsonov, who was injured in a collision with Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn in a case of friendly fire early in the second period. Samsonov made eight saves before being replaced by his rookie backup.
“Excellent,” Tavares said of Woll. “Not surprising. His potential is sky-high.”
Toronto fell to 3-1 on the road in the playoffs – all in OT – and have lost three in a row for the first time since late October following a tough night against the stingy Panthers.
Only four teams have come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series in NHL history – the Leafs (1942), New York Islanders (1975), Philadelphia Flyers (2010) and the Los Angeles Kings (2014).
Toronto defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round for the Original Six franchise’s first series victory in nearly two decades. Florida, meanwhile, upset the 65-win Boston Bruins with three straight victories – including two in OT – after trailing that series 3-1.
Up 1-0 after Sunday’s first period, Samsonov was hurt 37 seconds into the second when Schenn bowled into his netminder trying to thwart a Florida scoring chance. The Russian stayed down and was looked at by Toronto’s trainer before exiting.
Woll, who played the third period of Game 1 against Tampa, came off the bench in relief with Schenn in the penalty box for tripping.
“It’s still a hockey game,” Woll said. “My process doesn’t change regardless of Stanley Cup final or an exhibition game.”
Toronto nearly killed off Florida’s power play, but Duclair scored his second of the post-season on a nice deke to tie things at 2:36.
The Leafs went back in front at 7:32 when Gustafsson, who entered the lineup with Toronto electing to dress 11 forwards and seven defencemen with winger Matthew Knies (concussion) out, saw his pass in front bounce into Florida’s goal off the stick of blue liner Marc Staal for his first after some nice work from Nylander.
But the Panthers, twice victorious in Toronto thanks in large part to Bobrovsky’s stellar play and now on a franchise-record playoff winning streak that sits at six games, knotted the score again at 12:28 when Verhaeghe tipped in his fourth.
Woll made a big stop on Anton Lundell with under seven minutes left in regulation to keep the Leafs’ hopes alive before a huge save on Sam Bennett to force the extra period.
“He was great,” Keefe said of his goaltender. “He’s ready for this.”
Toronto opened the scoring on a 2-on-1 at 2:26 of the first when Lafferty one-timed a David Kampf pass after Matthews hit the post less than 20 seconds into the game before the Panthers pushed back – and pushed Toronto to the precipice of another off-season of tough questions following last weekend’s emotional playoff breakthrough.
“Gotta start with one (win) and give yourself a chance,” Keefe said. “They’re in full control.
“It’s on us now to make it uncomfortable for them and not go away.”
Leafs fans chanted “We Want Florida!” before the Panthers beat the Bruins in Game 7. Florida fans belted out those three words over and over as their team celebrated Reinhart’s winner.
Keefe said goaltender Matt Murray, who hasn’t played since suffering a concussion in early April, is cleared to play and an option for Game 4.
The Panthers did their best to limit Toronto support inside FLA Live Arena with a ticketing policy that required a U.S. address for the first 24 hours of seat sales, but that didn’t stop thousands of fans sporting blue and white from getting in the building.