TORONTO â€“ The Toronto Maple Leafs woke up in wild-card position Sunday morning, but with so many critical dates remaining against the divisional elite, they still have eyes on the No. 1 seed.
Soâ€¦ weâ€™re saying thereâ€™s a chance.
â€œEverything’s still up for grabs,â€ asserted head coach Sheldon Keefe. â€œWe can still compete for home ice in the first round. We can still compete to win the division.
â€œWe’ve kept pace all season.â€
Indeed, when facing their fellow Eastern Conference powers, Toronto has looked anything but out of place. (Itâ€™s actually their squandered points against lottery-bound teams like Buffalo and Montreal that could cost them home ice.)
Rebounding strong off Saturdayâ€™s blown-lead defeat at the Bell Centre, the Maple Leafs toppled the Florida Panthers, those 94-point Beasts of the East, 5-2.
It was the type of entertaining hockey that should have fans being OK with seven more of these.
Morgan Rielly drove the net and got his blade on a T.J. Brodie slap-pass just 49 seconds after puck drop, and for the second night in a row the Leafs opened the scoring on the gameâ€™s first shift.
Florida â€” the highest-scoring and most-frequent-shooting team in the NHL â€” would not be deterred, striking back with goals from Brandon Montour and Ryan Lomberg.
Hardly, the household names one might expect. But these Panthers are deep and come chugging in waves.
“Speed, skill, depth,” Keefe said. “Offence can come from any of the four lines. In fact, their third line is equally as productive as their top six.
â€œThey come with a lot of pace, a lot of competitiveness. They’re a physical team. They’ve been the class of the Eastern Conference.â€
When the whistles finally went their way, it was the Leafsâ€™ turn to flip the seesaw battle.
Captain John Tavares lurked around the blue paint and scored consecutive power-play goals off pretty feeds from Mitch Marner in tight.
The captain smiled wide, clearly enjoying his first two-goal outing since Nov. 6 (versus Boston). Tavares has now registered the 10th 60-point campaign in his career.
Marner recorded his third unanswered primary assist by setting up a streaking Ilya Mikheyev, who deked out Spencer Knight like heâ€™s forgotten how to miss on breakaways.
The frantic four-horse race for the Atlantic Division crown picks up again Tuesday, when the Maple Leafs travel to TD Garden and take on the Bruins.
â€œThese games down the stretch â€” against Boston, against Florida, against Tampa â€” are huge for us,â€ Alexander Kerfoot said.
â€œPlaying Florida three times, the positioning in our division is wide open right now. There can be lots of movement. Itâ€™s about getting the points in those games.â€
Foxâ€™s Fast 5
â€¢ William Nylander remained on David KÃ¤mpfâ€™s third line, a continuation of Saturdayâ€™s line juggle.
“This is a four-line team,” Keefe said of Florida. “They’re going to come at us here. The way we have things balanced, it makes a lot of sense.”
â€¢ Harvard star Nick Abruzzese, who signed his entry-level deal Saturday, will meet the Maple Leafs in Boston Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Matthew Knies and the University of Minnesota Gophers advanced to the Frozen Four with a 3-0 win over Western Michigan Sunday. Knies scored the winner.
â€¢ The Panthers are rolling with the rare five-forward power-play formation.
With quarterback defenceman Aaron Ekblad injured and PP threat Claude Giroux recently acquired via trade, Florida throws out Giroux, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Anthony Duclair and Sam Reinhart as its PP1.
“Actually, I don’t mind it,” Barkov, who mans the point, told reporters. “We tried it in the playoffs last year. You have to feel comfortable and confident because you’re on top. And if you don’t make the right plays, the puck is not going to stay in the zone.”
â€¢ Nice ovation at Scotiabank Arena during the first TV timeout as the crowd rose to its feet to congratulate Team Canada for qualifying for the World Cup.