By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – Nick Cousins scored the overtime winner as the Florida Panthers unlikely Stanley Cup run continued with a 3-2 victory that brought the Toronto Maple Leafs season to a predictable end on Friday.
Few in the NHL world expected much from a Florida team that only clinched a playoff berth with two days left in the regular season.
But the Panthers have been the playoffs surprise package, eliminating the top-seeded Boston Bruins in the opening round and closing out the best-of-seven series with Toronto 4-1.
Florida advances to the Eastern conference final for just the second time where they will face the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It’s fun to watch guys who work really hard and compete,” said Panthers coach Paul Maurice. “They come to the rink, they work their buns off and we laugh.”
For the Maple Leafs and their long suffering fans a 56-year Stanley Cup drought continues.
The Leafs did manage to reach the second round for the first time since 2004, but that singular accomplishment seemed minor for a team rated a Stanley Cup favourite.
“I believe we had a team good enough to win the Stanley Cup and we didn’t do that,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “This is a missed opportunity for our group.”
An original six team rich in history and one of the NHL’s most valuable franchises, the Leafs have stumbled through decades of frustration but this year’s failure is expected to produce a turbulent offseason of change.
After losing the first three games to Florida, history was against Toronto with only four teams having ever climbed out of 0-3 holes.
“It’s hard to win,” said Leafs Auston Matthews, who has 40 or more goals in five of seven seasons with the Leafs, but did not score against the Panthers. “I think we know that more than anybody.
“This is tough.”
The Panthers knew well that it is not impossible to overcome 3-1 series deficit, having done so themselves in the opening round against the Bruins.
Florida was on the scoreboard first on Friday with a powerplay goal from Aaron Ekblad and added another before the end of the period from Carter Verhaeghe to take a 2-0 lead into the intermission, turning the packed arena into a morgue.
Morgan Rielly would bring the crowd back to life in the second, beating Sergei Bobrovsky from long range and then had them roaring again when he appeared to score the equalizer cutting across goalmouth and jamming the puck over the line.
But a lengthy video review would rule no goal.
The clock was ticking down on Leafs season when, with under five minutes left in regulation, William Nylander flew down the wing cut towards the net and beat Bobrovsky to the shortside, sending the contest to overtime.
Toronto could not complete the comeback, Cousins getting the winner with 4:28 left to play in the first overtime.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)