NHL playoffs: Leafs' top players disappeared when the team needed them most in Game 3

Sam Reinhart scored the overtime winner for the Panthers in Game 3 on Sunday to give Florida a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Leafs.

Alexander Kerfoot told the traveling media contingent that it was a must-win game, an observation that appeared to be strikingly obvious for anyone with even a remote interest in the Toronto Maple Leafs. The message, however, clearly wasn’t received by the team's best players.

This was arguably the worst game of both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner’s respective seven-year tenures with the club, and Toronto now trails the Florida Panthers three games to none — a nearly insurmountable deficit — after Sam Reinhart notched the overtime winner in Game 3.

This loss falls squarely on the shoulders of the Maple Leafs’ star-studded, top-heavy core. Morgan Rielly and William Nylander can perhaps be excused from this narrative but with everything to play for, a pivotal season in this group’s timeline was on the line and Marner, Matthews and captain John Tavares were completely absent. Marner, Matthews and Tavares in that order were Toronto’s worst players in regulation, ranked by expected goals at 5-on-5, although you don’t need the charts to quantify their impact, or lack thereof on Sunday.


Marner has been dead-set on shedding individual accolades during a career year where he was named among the three finalists for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the best defensive forward in the NHL. He got straight up bullied in Game 3, as Florida generated 18 scoring chances for with four against when Marner was on the ice in all situations, to go along with a game-worst 24-percent share of the expected goals and a 31-percent Corsi. This is just supplementary context.

He couldn’t find open teammates, constantly lost puck battles and appeared seemingly indifferent where, logically, it would make no sense for him to submit a sub-par effort. He turned the puck over during a first-period shift where the Panthers hemmed the Maple Leafs in their defensive zone for nearly three minutes without a clearance. On a key offensive zone entry attempt, Marner lost the puck to Radko Gudas, who isn’t the most nimble skater by any means. Marner’s playmaking rendered him a walking scoring chance during the season and for large parts of the first-round series against the Lightning. He registered two shots in the biggest game of his career and was mostly a liability in Game 3, however.

Matthews was almost equally as bad, as the Maple Leafs were outchanced 18-7 when he was on the ice. During the first shift of the game, Matthews hit the crossbar and it was far and away his best effort of the evening, finishing with two shots overall. The reigning Hart Trophy winner laboured through the game after blocking a shot and he may be fighting through a larger injury overall, but once feared as the game’s best goal-scorer, he has been completely overshadowed by the likes of Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair in this series.

The surging Panthers pushed the Maple Leafs to the brink with a dramatic overtime win in Game 3. (Getty)
The surging Panthers pushed the Maple Leafs to the brink with a dramatic overtime win in Game 3. (Getty) (NHLI via Getty Images)

Tavares was the city’s hero last weekend with his series-clinching goal against the Lightning, but he appeared to be skating in quicksand in Game 3. He could only place two shots on net and though he excelled in the faceoff dot at a 63-percent clip, that’s just ancillary detail when you can’t buy a goal. Nylander constantly created chances for his linemates and Tavares couldn’t deliver.

Speaking of Nylander, you can perhaps give him a pass. He’s been Toronto’s best creator by far but once again, the same problem still applies. None of the predictive chances are materializing into anything worth shouting about.

The most damning indictment: Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander haven’t scored a goal through three games. Applying criticism through the vantage point of the salary cap is the most boring lens but you can’t ignore that their salaries account for 49 percent of the Maple Leafs’ space. The salaries don’t matter when you get on the ice and they can’t outscore their opponents — Matthew Tkachuk aside, the Maple Leafs are vastly more talented, acclaimed and decorated than the Panthers and yet they’ve been completely erased.

It’s an inexcusable showing from the Core Four. You could be an apologist and believe that some of their efforts would portend better results in the future. That ship has sailed and perhaps crashed into a boulder. This is the type of effort that stains even the best reputations.

Ilya Samsonov left the game during the second period and was replaced by Joseph Woll, who was thrust into action and made a number of key saves off horrific turnovers from Maple Leafs veterans — Ryan O’Reilly had a particularly awful giveaway in the dying minutes of the third period that almost proved fatal.

It’s not fair to judge Woll too harshly, considering he was the third-string option for most of the season, but they needed him to morph into an elite NHL goaltender overnight and that didn’t happen. These are the unreasonable circumstances that arise when your four star forwards are missing in action.

If you find the prolonged misery of the Maple Leafs’ fan base to be the height of comedy, you’re going to love this part of it, too. Maple Leafs fans clearly wanted to avoid the 65-win Boston Bruins and got their wish. Be careful what you wish for. Maple Leafs fans asked for the Panthers, they got it, and now it’s turned into a hilarious refrain.

All the hope and belief that this year would be different for the Maple Leafs is now awash with the harsh reality that, barring one of the most statistically improbable comebacks in the history of North American men’s sports, the series is over, in embarrassing fashion. And you can’t even say the Maple Leafs’ players were merely outplayed, they didn’t even show up.

Toronto pushed all of its chips in, knowing that a first-round exit would be considered untenable and heads would roll. What’s the point of a second-round exit if it effectively has the same result?

Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Sam Lafferty (who scored the game’s opening goal and is one of the few players exempt from criticism in this one) Luke Schenn and Jake McCabe joined the Maple Leafs at the deadline with the aim of augmenting a hyper-talented core group that couldn’t get over the proverbial hump. And eight days after helping the Maple Leafs extinguish their demon, the franchise is back at the starting line once again, this time without an answer or any excuses.

Through some good fortune, the Maple Leafs received a dream matchup and entered as the clear favourite. Instead, their best players disappeared during the biggest games of their careers, relying on the ancillary players to pick up the slack. All the pieces broke in the Maple Leafs’ favour and the team’s marquee players fumbled a golden opportunity during the most critical year of their professional existence. Picking through the debris is a sordid yet appropriate ending.