Panthers’ playoff hopes take another hit with loss to Leafs, 1st losing skid since January

Tribune Content Agency

SUNRISE, Fla. 1 As recently as Tuesday, the Florida Panthers held full control of their postseason destiny.

They picked a bad time for their first losing streak since January.

A second straight loss — this time a 6-2 rout at hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday in Sunrise — has the Panthers reeling once again with only 10 games left now to make up ground in the hunt for the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Florida never led, fell behind by two goals in the second period and couldn’t muster any sort of meaningful push in the third.

The Panthers (36-29-7) will remain at least one point behind the Penguins for the second wild card — they played the Stars later Thursday — and three behind the Islanders for the top wild card, and Florida has now played the same number of games as both of the teams it’s chasing.

The Panthers were never going to be perfect down the stretch, but back-to-back losses, especially with one coming to the lowly Flyers on Tuesday, have further tightened the margin of error for a team that can’t afford many more defeats.

Florida doesn’t have any games left against the Penguins or Islanders, so it’ll need help from other teams across the league no matter how well it plays the rest of the way. For the last two games, the Panthers’ haven’t been nearly good enough.

Their loss in Philadelphia came with some built-in excuses. They were playing on the second end of a back-to-back set, they gave star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky a needed night off, and were unexpectedly stuck playing without forwards Sam Bennett and Anthony Duclair. Still, the Flyers are one of the worst teams in the league and Florida only has so many games left against vastly inferior foes like them.

Toronto is on another level, a legitimate Stanley Cup contender with a top-10 offense and top-10 defense, in terms of goals per game. Aside from a power-play goal from All-Star right wing Matthew Tkachuk to tie the game at 1-1 in the first period, the Panthers never put up much of a fight.

Superstar center Auston Matthews put the Maple Leafs (43-19-9) up 1-0 with a laser from the slot in the first six minutes, then he and star winger William Nylander scored just 1:37 apart in the first three minutes of the third to rebuild a 3-1 lead, prompting loud chants of “Go, Leafs, go!” from the visiting fans among the 16,704 at FLA Live Arena.

Even when Florida cut Toronto’s lead to 4-2 on a slick backhand goal by Nick Cousins, the challenge didn’t last long. Less than seven minutes after the forward scored, the Maple Leafs got a 5-on-3 advantage and quickly cashed in to push their lead back to 4-2 with 1:39 left in the second period. They took the two-goal lead into the second intermission and cruised to the finish.

Although the Panthers finished with a XXXX advantage in shots, Toronto wound up with more scoring chances and high-danger chances, even though Florida had to be the aggressor, playing from behind for most of the game.