NHL Hockey

Chasing playoffs, Panthers set to host Maple Leafs

The Florida Panthers, locked in a battle to claim the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, will host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Florida (36-28-7, 79 points) is 6-1-1 in its last eight games, but the Panthers are coming off a dud performance on Tuesday, losing 6-3 to the out-of-contention Philadelphia Flyers.

Prior to that, the Panthers won their third straight at the time, beating the Detroit Red Wings, 5-2. That win allowed the Panthers to pass the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild-card spot in the East, which they still hold entering Wednesday.

"We have always believed in ourselves," said forward Carter Verhaeghe, who leads Florida with a career-high 36 goals. "But the job's not done yet."

Verhaeghe's point was proven correct on Tuesday as Florida's backup goalie, Alex Lyon, allowed five even-strength goals against the Flyers.

"I think we were caught a little sleepy," Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour said of the loss to Philadelphia.

The Panthers were without two standout forwards on Tuesday: Anthony Duclair (illness) and Sam Bennett (undisclosed). Both are day-to-day for Thursday's game.

Without them, the Panthers are relying on forwards such as Verhaeghe, Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart.

Verhaeghe ranks sixth in the NHL in even-strength goals (29) entering play Wednesday.

Tkachuk leads Florida with 96 points -- eight short of the career high he set last season. Tkachuk also has an active six-game points streak. During that span, he has scored six goals and dished nine assists. Since Jan. 1, Tkachuk is third in the NHL with 53 points and second in assists (36).

Reinhart is third on the Panthers with 27 goals, and he ranks fifth with 54 points. He also has an active six-game points streak (six goals, three assists).

Expect the Panthers on Thursday to go back to starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who is 24-17-3 with a 2.98 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage.

Bobrovsky has played in 16 of the past 18 Panthers games. He's also 7-1-1 over his past nine starts.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs (42-19-9, 93 points) are in second place in the Atlantic Division.

Toronto is 17-12-4 on the road this season. The Leafs are coming off a 7-2 road loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly, though, said that defeat does not worry him.

"We're trying to get our game dialed in," Rielly said. "By no means are we losing focus. We're trying to play playoff hockey."

The Leafs' most impressive recent performance was a 5-2 win over the first-place Carolina Hurricanes on Friday.

"We've won some big hockey games against very good teams of late," Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said.

Mitchell Marner leads Toronto in assists (63) and points (90). He is the fourth Leafs player ever to post consecutive 90-point seasons, joining Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler and Doug Gilmour.

Marner has 27 goals, which ranks fourth on the Leafs this season behind William Nylander (35), Auston Matthews (32) and John Tavares (30).

Toronto's top goalie is Ilya Samsonov, who is 24-9-3 with a 2.46 GAA and a .914 save percentage.

--Field Level Media

Updated March 22, 2023

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