Matthews now at 62 goals as Maple Leafs rise to challenge against stingy Panthers

By Luke Fox, Sportsnet

The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t about to nitpick an impressive, if white-knuckled, victory over one of their most heated rivals.

“It was a really good challenge for us, and I thought we met it really well,” Auston Matthews said following Monday’s 6-4 win over the Florida Panthers.

While Florida’s coach, Paul Maurice, warned pre-game not to read much into the potential playoff preview, Toronto’s Ryan Reaves went the other way, stressing the importance of sending a message.

Then Reaves & Co. accomplished precisely that, matching the Cats claw for claw in a spirited 90-hit affair and pouncing all over all-star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Before the contest was 35 minutes old, the Maple Leafs had hung five even-strength goals on the NHL’s stingiest defensive team, building a four-goal lead and sending Bobrovsky to the showers early. 

It was the type of offensive outburst (five scorers from three lines) that Toronto never generated in last spring’s disappointing five-game elimination to this very opponent.

Further, the Maple Leafs’ improving penalty kill locked things down, and emerging playoff starter Ilya Samsonov mixed a few 10-bellers into his 100th career victory.

“We were engaged in the game,” said Matthew Knies, who registered a goal, an assist, and a spirited rough-up of the six-foot-five Niko Mikkola in retaliation of the defenceman’s hit on Pontus Holmberg. “I just wanted to kind of set the tone for the game.

“It was hard. I think they’re a really good team, and I think it was a lot more physical and fast-paced. It looked like a playoff game, for sure.”

Credit to the Panthers, they didn’t roll over.

“Give ’em an inch,” Matthews said, “and they’re going to take a yard.”

Florida responded with three straight goals in the third, forcing Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe to call a calm-down timeout. Then the Cats immediately pinged a post on a potential game-tying shot.

Thankfully, Matthews salted the outcome into an empty net with Florida pressing six-on-five.

“Interesting for fans,” Samsonov said, flashing a smile. “We get some nervous for everybody all the time.”

Keefe noticed that his group stopped moving the puck with efficiency after constructing a comfortable lead but resisted criticism. 

“We lost our energy,” Keefe said. “I don’t like it. But it’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes, up four goals in Game 74, headed to Game 75. So, we did enough good things through two periods to bail us out.”

The coach revealed that he purposely challenged his inexperienced line of Knies, Holmberg and Nick Robertson by throwing them some difficult matchups in the final frame.

The high-event young guys scored twice early, then got burned twice late and finished even.

“I don’t think we played structured enough in the third period,” Knies said. “We let loose, including myself. I think I left the door open for Sam [Bennett, who scored], and then I don’t think it was a good effort from our line. But the guys stepped up in here and got the job done at the end of the night.”

So, the Maple Leafs leave with two points and a warning, some things to consider and some to feel confident about.

“We take away that we can be on the winning side against this team,” Robertson stated.

Yeah, things got hairy late. Just as so many playoff games do. But good teams find a way to hang on.

“We win this game. Doesn’t matter what’s going on,” Samsonov said. “That’s a tough game against a good team. That’s most important.”

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