The pesky Florida Panthers won their fourth consecutive game on Tuesday to take a 1-0 lead in their second-round playoff series with the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena.
Carter Verhaeghe had the winner in the 4-2 contest on a breakaway with a little more than two minutes left in the second period and defenceman Brandon Montour rifled in a slap shot with 7:36 remaining in the third. It was Montour’s sixth goal in eight postseason games.
The Panthers came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Boston, the best team in the NHL this season, in the first round.
“We like our game now but in the playoffs anything can happen,” said Verhaeghe, who led Florida with 42 goals during the regular season. “We’re happy with that win but there is a lot of hockey left.”
Sergei Bobrovsky had 34 saves in the victory, his fourth in the last five outings. Ilya Samsonov stopped 24 of 28 shots for Toronto.
Game 2 will be played Thursday in the rink on Bay Street before the series heads to Sunrise, Fla., for Games 3 and 4 on Sunday and Wednesday.
Toronto won three consecutive games in overtime in Tampa to beat the Lightning in six games in the first round.
“I think we made mistakes tonight that we didn’t make in the first series,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “They have real high-end skill throughout their lineup and make plays at a fast pace.
“You make a mistake and you don’t have a lot of time to recover.”
‘The opener on Tuesday was the Maple Leafs’ first second-round game since April 22, 2004, when they lost to the Flyers in the first outing of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Philadelphia went on to win the series in six games.
Florida was out of the playoffs when it came to Toronto on March 29 and beat the Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime. After that it went 5-1-1 and clinched the second wildcard position in the Eastern Conference by one point.
The Panthers’ reward was a first-round matchup with Boston, which had just completed the greatest regular-season in NHL history.
In a remarkable upset, the Panthers won the final three games, the last in overtime on Sunday, to eliminate the Bruins in seven games. They had finished the regular season with 43 fewer points than Boston.
“The thing that brought us together is that we knew we were crazy underdogs,” Matthew Tkachuk, the Panthers’ rugged left wing, said earlier in the day. He had three assists and nine hits in the victory. “That doesn’t change now. The prize for knocking off the best team is to have to knock off the second-best team.
“A lot of people don’t think we are going to be able to pull this one off, just like they thought we wouldn’t the last. Not many people thought we’d be in this position.”
Tkachuk, who was acquired from Calgary in an off-season trade, topped 100 points for the second year in row. He had five goals and six assists against Boston. Florida stunned Boston by escaping out of a 3-1 hole.
“I think it’s kind of a matter of us being oblivious to the situation we were in,” Tkachuk said. “It allowed us to stay right in the moment and focus one day at a time. We didn’t want our season to end. There was a lot of motivation for us. A lot of doubters, except for us.”
Toronto, which had lost eight straight series dating to 2004, advanced to the second round on a goal by John Tavares in overtime on Saturday at Tampa.
Tavares had four goals in the six-game series and he and his wife celebrated the birth of their third child only days before his winning goal.
“It has been a great week and we obviously want to keep it going now,” Tavares said following the morning skate. “We want to push this forward. The first round was just a first step.
“The Panthers showed tremendous resiliency and belief in themselves against Boston. They played on their toes and really pressed them. They fought right to the end and earned the result.”
In Game 1, they were spunky again.
Toronto had two power plays in the first five minutes and failed to score. Florida took advantage and went ahead when Nick Cousins rifled a rebound off a shot by Tkachuk past Samsonov with 10:35 left in the first period. It was Cousins’s first goal of the postseason and his 12th point.
The first 20 minutes were well played by both clubs and especially both goalies. Bobrovsky stopped all nine shots he faced, Samsonov 12 of 13.
In the first round, Samsonov went 4-2 with a .900 save percentage and won a goaltending duel with Andrei Vasilevskiy, his counterpart with Tampa Bay.
Bobrovsky went 3-1 with an .891 save percentage after he replaced Alex Lyon in Florida’s net against the Bruins. Bobrovsky won each of his last three starts and allowed just one even-strength goal and stopped 86 of 89 shots at even strength over the last three contests.
“He needs to be in the net for our team and our franchise,” Paul Maurice, the Panthers coach, said afterward. “He needs to be the deciding factor.”
The game opened up in the second. Sam Bennett tipped in a shot by Aaron Ekblad with 12:02 remaining to put Florida up 2-0.
Only 11 seconds later, Matthew Knies brought Toronto to within 2-1 with his first professional goal. Knies, a 20-year-old rookie who has played nine games in the NHL during the regular season and playoffs combined, jammed a puck at Bobrovsky on a rush and then followed it up with a backhand as he spun around. Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly got assists.
The momentum seemed to change as Michael Bunting tied it at 2-2 on a rush with 5:09 to go in the second with assists to Calle Jarnkrok and Rielly.
Verhaeghe, who led the Panthers with 42 goals during the regular season, put them back ahead 2:13 before the second intermission on a breakaway after a turnover by T.J. Brodie. Anthony Duclair and Aleksander Barkov garnered the assists.
“We finally got back in the game and then we gave up a break-away to the one guy we didn’t want to,” Keefe said. “You can’t make that mistake.”
The Panthers silenced a crowd that had risen to its feet when Bunting tied it, the same way they quieted fans at TD Garden on Sunday night.
“They come as advertised,” Luke Schenn, the Maple Leafs defenceman, said. “They are a real good team.”