There isn’t too much different between the Panthers and the Maple Leafs, but the fact that Toronto is in the playoff race and Florida is not was evident on Tuesday night.
The Leafs entered the game with a 1-point lead over the Bruins for the 3rd spot in the Atlantic Division and are jockeying for a playoff position.
That was all the motivation they needed as they got offensive production from a few of their young, talented forwards to defeat the reeling Panthers 4-3 at the Air Canada Center.
Auston Matthews regained the rookie scoring lead with his 35th goal of the season to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead 11:54 into the 1st period.
Another rookie, Connor Brown, fed a cross-ice pass to Leo Komarov on a 2-on-1 rush which was one-timed past James Reimer to make it 2-0 headed into the first intermission.
Just past the half-way point of the 2nd period, Brian Boyle made contact with James Reimer’s head as he attempted to circle around the back of the net, forcing him out of the game with an upper-body.
Reilly Smith redirected a Keith Yandle slap pass from the right point to the top shelf to get the Panthers to within 1, but former Panthers prospect Zach Hyman scored shorthanded on an odd-man break to put the Leafs back up by 2.
The Panthers tried to rally late in the 3rd period by pulling Reto Berra during a power play opportunity, and Jaromir Jagr scored his 15th goal of the season with 56 seconds remaining to decrease the deficit to 1, but that would be the end of it.
With an assist on the goal, Aleksander Barkov tied a career-high with 31 on the season, and he did it in 5 fewer games than last season. He is also 2 assists away from 100 in his NHL career.
Reto Berra, making his 3rd appearance with the Panthers, stopped 10 of the 11 shots he faced in relief of the injured James Reimer. Reimer exited after making 12 saves on 14 shots.
Curtis McElhinney, starting in place of Frederik Andersen, made 25 saves on 27 shots, including one with his stick while laying on the ice to deny Reilly Smith in the middle frame.
The Leafs have now won the season series with a 4-1-0 record.
The Panthers are inching closer to being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, although it’s been the case realistically for the past couple of weeks at least. The top two teams in the Atlantic Division – Montreal and Ottawa – aren’t too far off from clinching their trips to the post-season while the Leafs, Bruins, and Lightning are in striking distance.
The 4-game road trip rolls on with a visit to the Bell Centre to face the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday. The season series is currently split with both teams winning a game in overtime and 2 meetings remaining.