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Sports Awful loss in Florida shouldn't distract from Leafs' body of work

00:01  07 april  2022
00:01  07 april  2022 Source:   ca.sports.yahoo.com

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were authoring the most positive spin.

Using four goals in eight minutes to take a 5-1 lead on the Florida Panthers less than 24 hours after salting away a comfortable and immensely impressive victory cross-state over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs were in position to pass their key late-season evaluations flawlessly, running the table in four games versus Atlantic Division powerhouses.

Two wins over Florida and convincing victories over both the Lightning and Boston Bruins over the span of 10 nights would serve as nothing less than a clear state of intent with less than a month to go before the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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Then things took a hard left turn.

Five consecutive goals from the Comeback Cats prior to Jonathan Huberdeau's overtime winner not only saw the Panthers strengthen their grip on the Atlantic Division crown, but forced the Leafs to reconvene with the demons they so often face in big moments.

It wasn't that they lost, it was how they lost. Failing so dramatically is apparently not something one can just remove from their make-up.

The Leafs jumped out to a big lead against the Panthers then squandered it in epic fashion. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports) © Provided by Yahoo Sports Canada The Leafs jumped out to a big lead against the Panthers then squandered it in epic fashion. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

It is harsh, though, that the Leafs had to consider previous trauma while exiting Florida.

They not only took seven of a possible eight points at a critical point of the season versus the pool they will encounter in the playoffs, but were utterly dominant for meaningful stretches — including the first 30 minutes Tuesday. Had it been a competitive 3-2 overtime loss in the same situation — on the second half of a back-to-back versus the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference — and they just ran out of gas, the water-cooler conversations around the Leafs would have still been centred around the idea of believing it could be different.

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There's reason that should still be the prevailing thought.

Not every collapse is the same. This wasn't Game 7 under the harshest of the lights. Reputations and decisions won't have hinged on the result of this game. In fact, it's as difficult a spot as the Leafs have on their schedule this season.

Had it gone down differently, many would ascribe it as a loss built into the schedule.

Florida is not only a team with the firepower to reverse a certain result, but the precedent to believe that it's legitimately within their abilities. It was the Panthers' 24th comeback win, so we know by now that a half tank isn't enough versus the Cats.

If the Leafs did indeed run into the sturdiest of walls, matters were made worse by the state of the team's goaltending. Toronto's starter, third-stringer Erik Kallgren, exiting after allowing an unconscionably bad goal was as powerful as any factor when promoting Florida's comeback.

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Sure, blowing a 5-1 lead under any circumstances is unforgivable, and that's why it will be the key takeaway for most when evaluating this team and its future prospects. But there are explanations for what happened.

It's for that reason that the first three games of this Atlantic Division pre-postseason proving ground seem far more relevant and instructive when looking to the future.

And the Maple Leafs have provided so much to like. Sheldon Keefe's group is rounding into form impeccably well.

Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are fashioning two of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the franchise, and maybe the best ever from a tandem.

John Tavares and William Nylander are once again contributing offensively.

The collection of depth forwards has come together in a manner few could have imagined, seeing its tentacles stretch well beyond the relentlessly effective third line.

Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin have rounded out what was once an incomplete defensive corps, and provided the sort of flexibility required in the postseason with Jake Muzzin returning to the lineup.

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Jack Campbell looks like he's recovered from his rib injury.

At every turn when assessing the Leafs roster, it seems they are more prepared for what's ahead. Capable contributors at virtually every position are sitting every night because the Leafs have managed to become as deep as they have ever been despite the financial constraints.

History did repeat itself in Florida, with the Maple Leafs suffering another embarrassing loss in a big moment.

But it should register for even those Leafs fans who swore they wouldn't get sucked in again that the three wins in sequences over the Panthers, Bruins, and Lightning should mean more than running out of steam in their third starter's worst appearance versus the most explosive team in hockey.

Achieving balance doesn't mean you can't be knocked off it temporarily.

Everything the Leafs have shown this season — and since finalizing their roster — suggests they can steady themselves again.

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