Panthers end skid, take down Leafs 7-2 in must-win game

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Even if the Panthers aren’t as well-positioned in the Eastern Conference playoff race as they’d like to be, their 7-2 win on Tuesday night over the division-rival Toronto Maple Leafs was still a big one. 

The Panthers put together one of their best games in a while as they ended their 5-game losing streak and earned just their second win in the last 10 games.

Although just about all of their games of late have been must-wins, Tuesday’s was the epitome as the Panthers entered the night 8 points back of the Islanders, who sit in the second wild card spot, and 7 behind the Leafs, a young team on the edge of the playoff picture.

Tom Rowe returned the Panthers’ lineup to normal after switching the line combinations for the past several games in an attempt to generate offense.

Ironically, it worked as they tied their highest goal total of the season – 7 – with a total of 11 players making it onto the scoresheet. Not only that, but all 4 lines had at least one goal scorer in what was one a very balanced attack.

The only other time the Panthers scored 7 times was when they defeated the Predators on February 11th to begin a 5-game winning streak. It’s also the most goals they’ve scored at home this season after scoring 6 against the Senators on January 31st.

And things got started quickly, too.

After a hard practice on Monday where Rowe and the Panthers’ coaching staff worked on having a better net-front presence, it took all of 18 seconds for Aleksander Barkov to put home a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau at the top of the Leafs’ blue paint.

Colton Sceviour made it a 2-0 lead about 10 minutes later with a shorthanded goal after a Toronto defenseman fell down at the Panthers’ blue line.

The goal gives Sceviour his 3rd shorthanded goal of the season to lead the team, making him the first Panther to score that many in a season since Radek Dvorak in the 2009-10 campaign.

Leo Komarov’s power play goal minutes later got Toronto as close as they’d get all night before Jonathan Marchessault tallied his 21st goal of the season on an innocent wrist shot from the point, giving the Panthers a 3-1 lead headed into the first intermission.

Marchessault’s second of the game came early in the 2nd period as he separated himself from several Leafs and redirected a perfect feed from Barkov past Curtis McElhinney, who replaced starter Frederik Andersen after allowing 3 goals on 8 shots.

The assist gave Barkov his 3rd consecutive multi-point game.

Reilly Smith snapped his 15-game goal-less drought with his 11th of the season on a rebound chance at the front of the net. Smith, who was shooting at a career-low 7.4 percent entering the game, had just 1 goal in last previous 23 games.

The Panthers’ final two goals came from Jussi Jokinen and Keith Yandle after Nikita Soshnikov lit the lamp for the Leafs, which was challenged and confirmed to be free of goaltender interference. Vanek recorded the primary assists on both goals, giving him a total of 4 on the night, setting a career high in a game for him and tying a franchise-record.

James Reimer made 28 saves on 30 shots to earn the win against his former team as well as his first victory in his last 8 appearances.

Of course, it won’t be easy to make the playoffs with how many points back the Panthers are, but they’re technically not eliminated from contention just yet, and this will certainly be a confidence booster for the entire team.

They’ll now head on the road for the next 3 games, and it will be one of their most difficult trips of the season. The Blue Jackets will play host to the Panthers on Thursday in the first game of a back-to-back. Florida has defeated Columbus in both meetings this season, with the most recent one being a 4-3 victory back on January 14th.

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