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The Leafs Return Home With Bruises, Nerves, And A Win

10:59 AM EDT on May 11, 2023

Sam Bennett and Jake McCabe hit each other
Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Florida Panthers exited their ice last night hoping the Toronto Maple Leafs got minimum enjoyment from their 2-1 win in Game 4 of this year's inaugural What, The Leafs Are Here? second-round series. So they did the traditional biblical message-sending at game's end in case Toronto forgot what the Panthers are really best at—making the Leafs feel it.

Brandon Montour hit Morgan Rielly with a second left in the game, which begat Jake McCabe hitting Sam Reinhart after the final siren, which begat Reinhart hitting Noel Acciari, which begat Rielly hitting Sam Bennett, which begat Carter Verhaeghe hitting Rielly, which begat Acciari hitting Montour, which begat Montour hitting Acciari, which begat Aleksander Barkov hitting David Kampf, which begat Kampf hitting Barkov, which begat Matthew Tkachuk hitting Mitch Marner, which begat Marner hitting Tkachuk, which begat McCabe hitting Montour, which begat Bennett hitting McCabe, McCabe trying to punch Bennett uphill, and Bennett getting the gratuitous post-potluck misconduct.

In short, the Panthers reminded the Leafs that elegance will not be permitted in this series, and if Toronto isn't going to fall on its own sword in standard Leafy style, the Panthers will make them suffer through the price of winning.

This isn't unexpected. Florida coach Paul Maurice was brought in to give the Panthers a playoff toothiness more associated with the Calgary Flames, the former homes of Bennett and Tkachuk. That toothiness was not enough to save Calgary coach Darryl Sutter, whose team apparently went into passive-aggressive revolt after the Flames missed the playoffs, because playoff toothiness without playoffs is basically a "we thank him for his service" press release nailgunned to the hood of the fired coach's car.

And Florida, in taking a 3-0 lead in the series, did so by making sure Toronto's skill players could not achieve full comfort, a responsibility that fell most visibly on veteran brawler Radko Gudas when he showed David Kampf his impression of a rhino.

The Leafs gritted their teeth, scored the next goal, and held on at the end. But even after last night's performance, which was by far their best, the Leafs took home a note from the teacher that said basically, "Still needs work." The Leafs are playing with a backup goalie in Joseph Woll, not normally a good idea, and going home is not necessarily a remedy, as the Leafs have lost four of their five games before the anticipation-engorged locals. Thus, Friday's game will have the usual sphygmomanometers attached to every Toronto player from Auston Matthews through William Nylander and all the way to owlish general manager Kyle Dubas. In fact, if you want to play ducks and drakes with what's left of your liver, take a shot of Old Galoshes Select for every time one of the broadcasters or analysts says "pressure" in reference to the Leafs. You should be laid out before the end of the anthems.

If that's not enough, the Leafs still have Florida's temperamental style to deal with, as last night's coda was meant to reinforce. The Leafs just have to decide which monster is scarier—the Panthers, or their own history.

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