Panthers stun Leafs in OT, advance to conf. finals

    Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.

TORONTO — The Florida Panthers eliminated the Maple Leafs from the NHL postseason with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference second-round series on Friday. Florida advances now to face the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

This is the second time in franchise history the Panthers have appeared in a Conference Final and their first trip back since the 1995-96 season. Florida entered this postseason as the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed and previously advanced past the top-seeded, Presidents Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in a seven-game first-round series.

Toronto was playing in the second round for the first time since 2004. The Leafs had previously lost six consecutive first round series before they topped Tampa in six games this year.

It was a tough pill for Toronto to swallow when their postseason run came to a screeching halt.

“It’s hard to win,” said Auston Matthews, who failed to score in the second-round series. “I think we know that more than anybody. This is a tough one.”

“The belief never wavered,” added captain John Tavares. “But it’s hard to believe it’s over.”

Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe felt the Leafs’ fate was sealed well before their Game 5 loss.

“We lost the series in the first three games,” said Keefe, alluding to Toronto falling into a 3-0 hole. “I believe we had a group good enough to win the Stanley Cup, and we didn’t do that. This is a missed opportunity for our group.”

Florida struck first on Friday when Aaron Ekblad capitalized on an early power play chance less than four minutes into the opening frame. Toronto’s penalty kill had struggled throughout the series, giving up goals in each of the last three games.

The Leafs couldn’t convert on their own power play chance later in the period that showcased strong, sustained zone pressure but limited shots on Panthers’ netminder Sergei Bobrovsky.

Florida doubled its lead shortly thereafter when Leafs’ defenseman Timothy Liljegren misplayed the puck at his own blueline right onto the stick of Anthony Duclair, who set up a Carter Verhaeghe strike.

The Panthers carried their 2-0 lead into the second period, where Morgan Rielly got Toronto on the board blasting a puck through traffic with Bobrovsky screened in front.

Rielly thought he scored again before the end of the period to tie the score at 2-2. But upon review the goal was overturned because the play was adjudged to have been whistled dead before the puck crossed the goal liner. That controversial decision caused fans to begin throwing debris onto the ice in displeasure.

Florida carried a 2-1 lead into the third where it held until the final five minutes. That’s when William Nylander found the back of the net to tie the game 2-2 with 4:23 to play in regulation.

The sides went into overtime where the score remained tied, even through a Panthers’ power play chance midway through the extra frame. Nick Cousins finally broke through with the game-winner to secure Florida’s win.

Toronto’s rookie netminder Joseph Woll made his second consecutive NHL postseason start after taking over in relief of injured starter Ilya Samsonov in the second period of Game 3. Woll backstopped Toronto to its lone win of the series in Game 4 and made 41 saves in the Game 5 defeat. At the other end, Bobrovsky came up with 51 saves to record his seventh victory in the Panthers’ last eight postseason games.

Part of the Leafs’ problem against Florida was Toronto’s core of talented scorers failed to shine. Going up against Florida, the Leafs’ offense never produced more than two goals in a game throughout the series. John Tavares produced one assist through five games, Matthews tallied zero goals and two assists, Mitch Marner had one goal and an assist and William Nylander notched two goals and one assist.

“We’ve got a lot of years on our contracts,” said Marner. “It sucks right now, but we’ve got belief.”

“There’s a great foundation in this group,” Tavares added.

It was the Panthers’ depth of scoring that shone most in their second-round victory. Florida had nine players tally at least a goal and that didn’t even include one from the Panthers’ second-leading goal scorer in the regular season, Hart Trophy finalist Matthew Tkachuk.

“That’s a big one for us and an important one for our franchise,” Tkachuk said. “They scored late, and we stuck with it. God, we’re still playing. That’s awesome.”

The offseason could bring real change to Toronto. Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas is in the last year of his contract and a new voice could be implemented before the coming year begins. But that’s not what Toronto’s players are hoping for.

“I love these guys,” said Rielly after the loss. “I don’t want anything to change.”

Florida will open its series against Carolina next week.

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