The Presidents’ Trophy winners are out. The reigning Stanley Cup champions have gone home, too.
The NHL postseason has taken some unexpected turns ahead of the second round and for the first time in nearly two decades, the Maple Leafs are still in the thick of things.
Not only that, some sportsbooks have actually made Toronto the new favourite to hoist the Cup later this spring for the first time since 1967.
A 19-year drought ended over the weekend as Toronto beat Tampa Bay to finally win a playoff series. Next up is eighth-seeded Florida, a team fresh off a Game 7 overtime stunner over the Boston Bruins.
“With the next series comes a new set of challenges,” said Toronto defenceman Luke Schenn. “Obviously you feel a sense of accomplishment for maybe 24 hours and then it’s on to the next.”
Instead of flying to Beantown for Game 1, the Maple Leafs secured home-ice advantage with the Bruins’ loss. They’ll host the first two games against Florida with the opener set for Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.
“After knocking off a team like Boston, I’m sure they’re going to be coming in here with confidence,” said Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews. “I think we can say the same about our group.
“We have to refocus and get ready for battle here.”
The Maple Leafs were drilled by the Lightning in their first-round opener and needed some comeback wins to pull out victories later in the series.
After blowing a chance to advance on home ice in Game 5, Toronto followed it up with a strong effort on the road. Captain John Tavares booked the second-round ticket with an OT winner.
“We’ve got to continue to make sure we play with lots of edge,” said Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “And obviously we’re looking to have a much better start to the series than we had last time around.”
It will be the first playoff meeting between the Maple Leafs and Panthers.
Matthew Tkachuk, who led Florida with 11 points in the first round, provides the team’s heartbeat. Carter Verhaeghe (eight points) and Aleksander Barkov (six) are also scoring threats and Brandon Montour is an anchor on the blue line.
Sergei Bobrovsky (3-1, .891 save percentage) and Alex Lyon (1-2, .902) split goaltending duties against the Bruins.
Toronto’s high-end talent delivered against the Lightning with Mitch Marner (11 points), Auston Matthews (nine), Morgan Rielly (eight), John Tavares, William Nylander and Ryan O’Reilly (seven each) leading the way.
Keefe said the Panthers have speed, skill and have built off their strong run of form down the stretch.
“I think in a lot of ways the type of series it’s going to be will be very similar to the one that we just went through,” Keefe said after a 45-minute team practice at Ford Performance Centre.
Toronto goaltender Ilya Samsonov played every game in the first round, posting a .900 save percentage and 3.14 goals-against average.
Joseph Woll served as the backup but Matt Murray (concussion) returned to practice Monday and will likely travel with the team.
In addition to the Panthers’ upset win, the Seattle Kraken topped the 2022 champion Colorado Avalanche in seven games to leave nine teams in the playoff mix entering play Monday night.
The Bet365 website listed Toronto as a favourite (at +350) to win the Stanley Cup, ahead of the Edmonton Oilers (+375) and Vegas Golden Knights (+550). Sports Interaction also listed the two remaining Canadian NHL playoff teams at 1-2 with the Dallas Stars third.
Florida head coach Paul Maurice coached the Maple Leafs for two seasons starting in the 2006-07 campaign.
The Panthers have 10 players on their playoff roster who are originally from Ontario, including six who were born within a two-hour drive of Toronto.
The Maple Leafs went 3-0-1 against the Panthers in the regular season.