First of all, I'd like to thank Donny and the rest of the guys for having me over here. It's been a great season to be a hockey fan in South Florida, the best in years. It's time to put up or shut up, 14 games to go, and the Cats probably need between 11 and 14 points to get in the door. Florida would probably like to enter the postseason on a little higher note than 11 out of 28 points. The focus at this point should be winning all the home games and splitting the road matchups. That would send the Panthers to the playoffs with 98 points and high spirits. Cross your fingers as we gear up for the stretch run.
The Panthers host the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise. This is the fourth and final meeting this season between the possible future "Conference 3" rivals, but don't hold your breath. Florida won all three prior matches in regulation, 5-1 in Toronto in November, 5-3 in Florida in December, and 5-3 again two weeks ago in Toronto. Right now, they're playing in the second game of an important four game homestand. They shut out the Carolina Hurricanes, 2-0 on Sunday, and go on to host the Boston Bruins on Thursday and the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
Videos and more after the jump...
The Maple Leafs will be playing in the second match of a five game road trip for their playoff lives. After dropping their first game to the Washington Capitals, 2-0 on Sunday, they will continue on to visit the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, the Ottawa Senators on Saturday and the Boston Bruins on Monday. Florida is 17-9-8 at home, while the Leafs carry a 14-18-2 road record into South Florida.
The last meeting between the two happened on February 28th. Marcel Goc (6) opened the scoring just 13 seconds into the first period to break the scoreboard seal. Mike Santorelli (8, 9) scored an even strength goal two minutes later and a power play marker midway through the second, Jason Garrison (14) notched the eventual game winner with the man advantage in the third, and Stephen Weiss (16) closed out the Panther's scoring later. For Toronto, Phil Kessel (32) and Joffrey Lupul (24) scored on the power play, and Nikolai Kuemin (7) also lit the lamp in the loss. Jose Theodore stopped 28-of-31 shots for the win, while James Reimer allowed all five goals on 23 shots in defeat. Former Toronto coach Ron Wilson lamented the lack of movement at the trade deadline and home fans booing the team,
"It's frustrating, but understandable," ex-coach Ron Wilson said. "We didn't do anything at the trade deadline and we came out tentative to say the least. We talked ad nauseum to the team about the (last) 20 games and finding our focus and we weren't ready to start the game."
Panthers @ Maple Leafs 02/28/12 (via NHLVideo)
In Florida's last game, Jose Theodore stopped all 34 Carolina shots for his third shutout of the season (and 33rd overall). Despite a great effort for the Canes, Cam Ward took the loss, stopping 31-of-32 shots. Tomas Fleischmann (22) tied Kris Versteeg for the team lead in goals scored in the second period, and Marcel Goc (8) added an empty netter to seal the victory. Theodore talked later about peaking at just the right time of the season,
"The last 25 games, that's what you play for," Theodore said. "It's the most fun of the year and you want to make the best of it. Right now as a team, we're responding well."
Hurricanes @ Panthers 03/11/12 (via NHLVideo)
For more on that, visit Canes Country.
Toronto is coming off a 2-0 blanking at the hands of the Washington Capitals on Sunday. Michal Neuvirth stopped 23 shots for the shutout, and Jonas Gustavsson allowed both goals on 23 Capitals shots for the loss. Brooks Laich (14) and Mathieu Perrault (12) provided the Capitals offense. New Toronto coach Randy Carlyle spoke about the lack of offense on the Maple Leafs part afterward,
"Are we sacrificing risk hockey for offense? Yeah, I would agree with that," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "I believe that the teams that play better defense, usually the offense comes around. We are starving for offense right now; we need a bounce to go our way. It's not like we are not creating quality scoring chances; we are creating them."
Maple Leafs @ Capitals 03/11/12 (via NHLVideo)
Toronto Maple Leafs: 30-31-8, 68 points, fourth Northeast Division, 12th Eastern Conference, 24th NHL, on pace for 81 points. Last five: W-L-L-O-L. Playoff odds: 2.5%
Game Time: 7:30 PM ET
Season Series: Cats, 3-0-0
All-Time Series: Florida has a chance to get to .500 all-time tonight against Toronto, going 23-24-12 since their inception.