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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Joseph Woll looks to make a save on Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk as Maple Leafs defenceman Justin Holl and forward William Nylander defend during overtime NHL second round Stanley Cup playoff hockey action in Toronto, May 12, 2023.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The clichés were floating around after Friday’s morning skate like all too many Toronto Maple Leaf forwards through too many games in this series.

“Take it day by day,” offered Michael Bunting. Noel Acciari upped the ante with “All business.” Ryan O’Reilly – a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner who should know of which he speaks – doubled down with not just “focus” and “execution,” but the oft-overlooked intangible of those crucial “little details.”

By Friday night, those clichés had been trumped by excuses, as yet another promising Maple Leafs season was brought to a jarring halt. After a back-and-forth overtime, Nick Cousins ended the Maple Leafs season with the overtime winner with 4:28 remaining. Breaking across the blueline on a 3-on-2, Cousins patiently waited and drove to the net before firing a wrist shot past Leafs goalie Joseph Woll.

Cathal Kelly: Everything went wrong for the Leafs

The Florida Panthers are off to the Eastern Conference final. Meanwhile the Leafs are left to pick up the pieces, and possible changes, to both the front office and roster, may well be coming.

“That’s not up to me to decide,” Morgan Rielly said about speculation over the team’s core. “We’re proud of our season and the things we were able to do over the course of it. I love these guys and I don’t want anything to change.”

In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, many of those excuses will likely focus on the game’s refereeing crew after they blew up what the crowd had hoped was a tying goal by Morgan Rielly with just under three minutes to play in the second period. Driving to the net, it looked as though the Leafs defenceman had slipped the puck under the right pad of Sergei Bobrovsky. The play went to video review, but it was determined that even though the puck slid into the net after Bobrovsky lifted his pad, the play was dead at that point.

The crowd was having none of it though, serenading the officials with a chorus of boos while some threw drinks and white commemorative towels onto the ice until the public announcer asked them to refrain.

How much the optics around this team have changed in one day shy of two weeks.

“We want Florida,” the Maple Leaf Square crowd had chanted after John Tavares’s overtime winner over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the last round.

Be careful what you wish for, a fact that was not lost on Panthers star winger Matthew Tkachuk after Game 5.

“It’s incredible, it really is,” he told the NHL Network’s Darren Pang minutes after Game 5 ended. “We don’t hear many ‘We want Floridas’ at this moment right now, and God does that feel good.”

After losing the first three games of the series, the Leafs did well to even force a Game 5. That they did it on the strength of a rookie goaltender who had never started a playoff game before Wednesday’s do-or-die Game 4 victory is to the credit of both Joseph Woll and the team in front of him.

The Leafs brought much of the same effort that had helped extend their season at least one more game, but they ran into one of the hottest goaltenders in the playoffs right now. Sergei Bobrovsky made 51 saves on the night, and while Toronto can consider itself unfortunate to end up on the losing end for the second straight game, head coach Sheldon Keefe said the first three games of the series were his team’s undoing.

“Obviously, we lose the series in the first three games,” he said afterwards. “Obviously in Game 4 I thought we played very well, I thought we played well enough to win the game today.”

But the uptick in total team effort and belief that had helped extend the Leafs’ season at least one more game went missing on Friday.

At the other end, the chance to seal the first playoff series sweep in Florida’s 30-year franchise history disappeared just as soon as the final horn went in Wednesday’s 2-1 Maple Leafs win, the Panthers wasted little time before turning the page.

“It’s all right,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “We’ll watch some video, we’ll learn. We’ve learned a lot. Every game we learn something new.”

If the team was looking for a portent of success to bolster its confidence, it could have done little worse than to get back on the road. Florida had enjoyed a 5-1 mark away from FLA Live Arena heading into Game 5, including winning three out of four in Boston in the previous series, which was almost half of the league-low seven losses that the Bruins experienced all season. Conversely, the Leafs have found little in the way of home comforts at Scotiabank Arena, going 1-4 there in the playoffs.

“There’s something nice in the playoffs about being on the road,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said. “You get a kind of cocooned feeling. Everybody else in the building’s not cheering for you, so it’s just you. And also, there’s a simplicity to your game. Just play the game.”

That they did.

After a rather listless Game 4 performance at home, the Panthers came out very much on the front foot. Aaron Ekblad put them on the board with a power-play goal for his first of the playoffs just 3:31 into the opening period, following a high-sticking penalty to Jake McCabe. Given that Florida was 5-0 in games in which it scored first this playoff, the Leafs were in tough at that point.

Florida’s flurry lasted just about to the five-minute mark, when the Leafs began to find their skates in the game. An offensive barrage followed, but Bobrovsky was equal to their every move, successfully repelling a pair of shorthanded situations.

Bobrovsky finished with 51 saves; Woll had 41.

With under four minutes remaining in the period, Florida doubled its advantage, Anthony Duclair feeding Carter Verhaeghe for a one-timer past Woll from a sharp angle for his fifth goal of the postseason.

Rielly got the team back into the game with a goal of his own 7:50 into the second period – his fourth of the playoffs – but his chance to double his tally was ruled out by video review.

No matter. William Nylander stepped up with his fourth of the playoffs with just under three minutes remaining to send the game to overtime.

The win moves the Panthers on to their first conference final since 1996, when they upset the Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins on their way to their lone appearance in a Stanley Cup final, albeit a losing one to the Colorado Avalanche. They will now play the second-seeded Carolina Hurricanes, who wrapped up a 4-1 series win over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night.

But while the focus of CBC and much of the rest of Canada can now move west to see if the Edmonton Oilers can end Canada’s 30-year wait for a Stanley Cup – which now stretches longer than Florida’s on-ice history – in Toronto and throughout the Golden Horseshoe, there are only questions.

Much of the good will accumulated in finally making it beyond the first round for the first time in 19 years has been summarily dissipated by the manner of the Maple Leafs’ dismantling in the second round. The autopsy may not be quick, and it may not be pretty, but it will be conducted under the glare of arguably the brightest spotlights anywhere in the hockey-playing world.

“There’s a great foundation here,” captain John Tavares said afterwards. “A lot of belief in this group.”

Meanwhile, those hockey hotbeds of Raleigh, N.C., and Sunrise, Fla., will duke it out for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup final.

For the Leafs, 2022-23 will represent another season of missed opportunity.

“I believe we had a team good enough to win the Stanley Cup and we didn’t do that,” Keefe said. “But there’s eight teams left playing in the second round here and all eight went in with a belief that they can win the Stanley Cup and seven of them are going to be disappointed.”

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