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The Panthers Don’t Give An Inch

TORONTO, CANADA: Anthony Duclair #10 of the Florida Panthers battles against Mitchell Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during Game Two of the Second Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on May 4, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Anthony Duclair; Mitchell Marner
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Hockey can be a tough game to explain sometimes, but there's nothing complicated about the Florida Panthers' red-hot run. Winners of five straight after a 3-2 comeback win in Toronto Thursday night, all the typical boxes for playoff success are being checked. Sergei Bobrovsky is standing on his head. Matthew Tkachuk is playing at a Conn Smythe level. Carter Verhaeghe is clutch. They're using their physicality to dictate the pace of the game, and forcing opponents into uncharacteristic mistakes. Even something so straightforward as a zone exit is a chore against a Florida forecheck that cedes no ice willingly.

Watch how they swarm the Leafs' attempt to bring the puck up in the opening seconds of the second period. Sticks poking everywhere, blue uniforms sprawled prone like it's the Battle of Bull Run. All-time franchise top scorer Aleksander Barkov hasn't lit the lamp often this postseason, but that's not a reason to panic: his two-way game lets him contribute even off the scoresheet, and the Barkov line, when it's working, functions almost like another checking line. Here it was primarily Anthony Duclair's relentless pressure that forced William Nylander into a turnover, and Barkov capitalized for the tying goal.

Gustav Forsling would score the eventual game-winner just 50 seconds later, but I do think it's watching the entire sequence leading up to it (I've cued it up in the video below). The Panthers carry the puck in at 19:27, and except for a half-second out (immediately dumped back in), it doesn't leave the Leafs zone for an endless-seeming 33 seconds until Forsling pots Florida's third. The work put in to make this happen is really something special. Tkachuk holds his own in a board battle against three Leafs. Sam Bennett hustles to close down Mitch Marner's attempted zone exit, where an aggressive defenseman is already waiting to stand him up at the blue line. Marner dumps to Auston Matthews, who can't get past Eetu Luostarinen. Some nifty-as-hell passing later, and it's 3-2.

If you want to frame Nylander's and especially Matthews's turnovers as mistakes, fine, I won't argue—the Toronto media is certainly doing as much. But these aren't unforced errors. These are the result of a furious forecheck, preached by Paul Maurice and executed by a committed bunch of forwards. It's the difference between last year's Panthers and this year's. It's the difference between the first-round Leafs and their current 0-2 hole. "Disappointing. Baffling," head coach Sheldon Keefe said of that second-period stretch. "We didn't make those mistakes one time in the last series." Baffling? Not really. Florida is avoiding mistakes, and suffocating opponents into making them, and capitalizing. That's the simplest recipe there is for winning in the spring.

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