Panthers strike early, often; topple Leafs 5-3

TORONTO, CANADA - FEBRUARY 28: Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates away as Mike Santorelli #13 of the Florida Panthers celebrates his goal during NHL action at the Air Canada Centre February 28, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Despite the Panthers adding Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky to their walking wounded, Florida marched into Toronto on Tuesday night and delivered a strong victory towards their playoff push and a nasty blow to the postseason hopes of the Maple Leafs. Despite only being five points apart in the standings before this game was played, Florida sat third overall in the Eastern Conference while the Leafs sat in tenth place on the outside of the playoff bunch. This game had pretty big repercussions for both teams, as the Leafs are still very much alive in the playoff hunt and a few wins could turn their recent struggles to distant memories and vault them right back into the thick of things. Florida had other ideas though, and they made them known early, scoring two goals in the first three minutes of the game and never letting Toronto really get back into this one. Mike Santorelli had his first two-goal game since February of last season, and netminder Jose Theodore played well enough to preserve the win for the Panthers, who opened up a four-point lead on the Jets for the division and won their third in a row. Excellent outing for the Cats, who are on a bit of a roll now.




Additional coverage at Pension Plan Puppets and SBN Tampa Bay

Scoring Summary

1st

2nd
3rd

Observations

  • Santorelli looked really good. He was everywhere, he scored a couple goals, played great defensively, forechecked well and had a ton of jump to his stride. Hopefully he can start to give that type of effort more consistently and show up on the scoresheet more often, as the Panthers could really use his scoring down the stretch. For a guy who potted 20 goals on a pretty awful team last year, management and fans are expecting more out of Santorelli, and he's certainly capable.
  • Florida really hurt themselves again with a lot of bad penalties. The offensive zone calls have to stop, and Weiss' interference call was just a really dumb play on his part. I believe our own Alex Calloway recently tweeted an interesting stat about how frequently Bergenheim takes penalties; he's gotta cut back on those as well (Bergy on the penalties, not Alex on the tweets).
  • There was a ton of scuttlebutt about the Maple Leafs trying to wheel and deal to improve their goaltending situation. After watching James Reimer in the first, you can see why. That said, you can't really blame Reimer for Luke Schenn's ugly turnover on the first goal or Mike Komisarik's positioning against Skille on the second. Still, there's no question Toronto will be goalie hunting in the offseason.
  • David Steckel went into the Panther net in the third period really hard, but managed to skate off under his own power. He collided with the post and made contact with an unpadded area of the leg, which has to hurt like hell. Hopefully Steckel will be alright.
  • Despite the Panthers blistering start to the game, the Leafs really bounced back and controlled much of the rest of play in the first. The Panthers kept up the forechecking though and generated more giveaways by the Toronto D. Florida is at their best when they use their speed to force turnovers on the forecheck. They got back to that later in the game, and started to really push the Toronto D back with speed and carried the puck into the zone.
  • I remember all the uproar when Dale Tallon pulled the trigger on the Michael Frolik trade, and a lot of folks were wondering why the Panthers dealt Frolik, a two-time 20-goal scorer, for Jack Skille, a relative unknown. We're now quite a ways from that trade taking place, and it really feels like the Panthers won that deal for now. Yes, the Cats moved Alexander Salak and he could pan out well for the Blackhawks, but at this point Skille is excelling for Florida while Frolik is struggling for the Hawks. Skille was excellent in this game and continues to provide energy and worth ethic every shift, and his presence in the lineup is definitely a boon for the Cats game in and game out.
  • Keaton Ellerby had a pretty good game, especially on the PK, where he was very effective and played valuable minutes alongside Mike Weaver. He's not making as many mistakes out there and is growing more confident as the season goes by. With his one-year deal expiring after this season, it'll be interesting to see if the Panthers management brings him back, but he's played admirably during injury and may have earned another deal.

First Star
Gotta give this one to Mike Santorelli. He was excellent all game and played probably his best game of the season. Too bad he couldn't pot an empty netter at the end for the hatty.

Worst Star
John Madden looks pretty slow and ineffective out on the ice. Hopefully Tomas Kopecky comes back soon and can bump Madden from the lineup.

Up Next
If you thought this game was important, the matchup with the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday is huge. Florida needs to win as many divisional games as possible, especially against Washington and Winnipeg. The Jets have lost their last two at home and Florida will be coming to town riding a four-game win streak. This has the potential to be a playoff style game for both teams, and hopefully Florida will bring the type of energy and jump they had against the Buds. Chris will have your recap on Thursday, because he's a nice guy like that.
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