Leafs on brink of being swept out of playoffs by Panthers

Things are starting to feel familiar for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That is not a good thing this time of year.

After finally winning a first-round series behind Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander after six consecutive years of early playoff exits, the Maple Leafs went into the second round as favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Instead, they are down 3-0 to the Florida Panthers and on the brink of being swept by the last team to qualify for the NHL postseason.

“It’s been difficult to understand, and yet it’s our reality and it’s where we’re at,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Our job is to win one hockey game and not get focused or bogged down by anything beyond that.”

That chance comes with Game 4 at Florida on Wednesday (7 p.m. EDT, ESPN). The Maple Leafs will try to avoid elimination without No. 1 goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who was injured in Game 3, and plan to start rookie Joseph Woll.

“We have lots of flexibility within our defense to try different things,” Keefe said.

Something has to give, or Toronto’s season will be over.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been down 0-3 in a playoff series before,” Nylander said. “Obviously, next game is huge for our club and we have to have our best game of the playoffs.”

The last time the Panthers won a series on home ice was 1996, when they played in Miami some 27 years and 16 coaching changes ago. Fans might get a chance to cheer a handshake line if Florida can pull off the stunning sweep.

“Last two rounds, the pressure has been on the opposing team,” forward Anthony Duclair said. “We’re the 8th seed, so there’s no pressure on us.”

The Leafs are on the verge of another playoff disappointment that would extend the franchise’s Stanley Cup drought that dates to 1967. Their four leading scorers have been held without a goal so far in the series.

They have a defender of sorts in Florida star Matthew Tkachuk.

“Well, I haven’t scored either, so I don’t know what the big deal is,” Tkachuk said. “It’s not about individuals here. It’s not about personal stats. I mean, I can’t speak for them. I know those guys know they’re very, very, very dangerous players and have been their whole career. So, they’re some guys that we’ve really got to keep an eye on.”

When Toronto got to practice on Tuesday, there was no outward signs of worry. Music blared — “She Blinded Me with Science” was among the selections — as the Maple Leafs warmed up for their workout by playing some spirited indoor soccer and tossing a medicine ball into concrete walls.

“We’re not that far off, and we certainly have the ability to put it together,” Keefe said. “This is a good hockey team on the other side, as well, that’s going to make it hard. But it’s meant to be hard. Anything worth achieving is hard.”

Panthers coach Paul Maurice has spoken often about the simple approach to these playoffs, and he’s not changing his ways. His message is unwavering.

“Enjoy your day,” Maurice said. “That’s it. Just enjoy your day. If we’re doing this right, the next game won’t be any different than any of the first 10 games.”

GOLDEN KNIGHTS at OILERS, Vegas leads 2-1 (10 p.m., ESPN)

The Golden Knights are down another goaltender after Laurent Brossoit left their 5-1 Game 3 victory with an injury. He was replaced by Adin Hill, who’s expected to start at Edmonton with the opportunity to put Vegas one win away from a spot in the Western Conference final.

While coach Bruce Cassidy said Brossoit was still being evaluated, he also acknowledged next goalie up is nothing new for his team. When he was hired a year ago, it looked like Robin Lehner would be the starter — until hip surgery knocked him out for the season. That made Logan Thompson the guy — until an injury sidelined the impressive rookie after the All-Star break.

Brossoit and Hill also dealt with injury absences, leading Vegas to acquire two-time Cup champion Jonathan Quick at the trade deadline. All the while, the Golden Knights have kept winning.

“We’ve tried to play the same way no matter who’s in nets,” Cassidy told reporters Tuesday. “Obviously goalies have certain ways and styles of play that you’ll adjust a little bit, but not in the big picture. You’re trying to play the same way, so I think it’s helped our goaltenders and whoever’s come in has done a good job.”

The Golden Knights chased Oilers starter Stuart Skinner by scoring four goals on 23 shots Monday night, but goaltending isn’t Edmonton’s biggest problem. Again the Oilers allowed a goal not long after they scored and have to be better about preventing giveaways and defending to even things up.

“Vegas is a good team,” winger Evander Kane said. “They know how to score goals. They know how to create offense, and we have to be a lot sharper in our own end and with the puck and around our net.”


AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Sunrise, Florida, contributed.


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