SUNRISE, Fla.—If the Maple Leafs have learned anything, it’s that a trip to Florida is no vacation.
A day that started with good news for Leafs fans — Auston Matthews was back after missing three games with an undisclosed injury — ended with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers and word that rookie-of-the-year candidate Michael Bunting will miss “some time” with an injury of his own.
With the Leafs heading to Washington for a game Sunday to end their final road trip of the regular season, coach Sheldon Keefe is running out of time to get the team shipshape for the playoffs, but seemed pleased with Saturday’s effort.
“I thought our guys played really hard,” said Keefe. “That’s not an easy team to play against, not an easy game to play — a lot of pace. We lose a guy (Bunting) early in the game. So our bench is taxed, lines are mixed up. It was a tough night for our guys that way, especially on forward. But I thought we did more than enough things to win the game.”
Alas, Brandon Montour scored in overtime — on a feed from ex-Leaf Mason Marchment — and the Leafs again came out on the short end of an extra-time game at FLA Live Arena. They saw a 6-1 lead turn into a 7-6 OT loss here on April 5. And Toronto’s 2-0 first-period lead Saturday — built on goals by Mitch Marner and Justin Holl — vanished in the second.
“We had more than enough looks to have four or five,” said Keefe. “We don’t make them count, and that team hangs around. That’s what they’ve been doing all season. They find ways to win.:
The Panthers won their 13th in a row, a streak that started one game after they lost 5-2 to the Leafs on March 27.
“But we feel good,” said Keefe. “They haven’t beaten us in regulation.”
The path through the playoffs for the Leafs seems ever so likely to go through the two teams in this state. They lost 8-1 on Thursday in Tampa to the hard-charging Lightning, who are hunting down the Leafs for the second seed — and home-ice advantage — in the first round of the post-season.
But the goaltending — with Jack Campbell equaling Sergei Bobrovsky shot-for-shot in regulation, before Montour beat Campbell between the legs — and overall effort were far better Saturday.
“I thought we were a lot more competitive, physical,” said Matthews. “We had much more of a purpose; I think it showed. Dropping the point definitely leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth, but I definitely liked our effort much better that the other night.”
Bunting left in the first period after taking a puck to the face and falling awkwardly behind the Panthers net. Keefe said it wasn’t the puck that caused his early exit from him, but he did not give any further details — though it sounded ominous.
“He’s going to miss some time, for sure. I don’t know how much,” said Keefe.
Bunting leads all NHL rookies with 63 points and has fit in well on the top line. His spot on him was taken mostly by William Nylander.
Matthews had a number of scoring chances among his game-high seven shots, but remained stuck on 58 goals in pursuit of the first 60-goal season ever by a Maple Leaf.
“It didn’t feel too bad,” said Matthews.
It’s far from a sure thing that Matthews will play Sunday night in Washington, however. The Leafs had been hinting they would “manage” his return from him to make sure he’s healthy for the playoffs, which start a week from Monday.
“I definitely want to play. I think we’ll manage it and see how it is (Sunday),” said Matthews. “These are important points obviously for us. I think there’s a bit of a happy medium thinking long-term as well, but we’ll see how it is.”
Hart to Hart
It was the last chance for two of the front-runners in the Hart Trophy to race to face off against each other: Matthews for the Leafs, Jonathan Huberdeau for the Panthers. Matthews is also gunning for his second straight Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer, while Huberdeau is hunting down Connor McDavid for the Art Ross as the top points producer.
Huberdeau was asked who would get his Hart vote if he had one and couldn’t vote for himself.
“I’d give it to Matthews. He’s having a great year,” said Huberdeau. “I mean, he’s special. I had a chance to play the all-star game with him. You give him the puck, he’s going to score every time. Not a lot of guys can get close to 60 goals.”
Matthews, in turn, chose Huberdeau — the NHL leader in assists with 83 — but was quick to mention other possibilities: “There’s so many guys to choose from. It’s tough, but obviously him. The year he’s having, it seems like he’s driving the bus for this team.”
Marner, with his 35th goal of the year, and Holl, with his third, got the Leafs off to a 2-0 lead. Aleksander Barkov and Claude Giroux scored in the second period to tie what was an entertaining and spirited game.
Marner’s goal was the 300th by the Leafs this season, their highest total since 1989-90, when they scored 337.
Ending any doubt that they were amping up their physical side for the playoffs, Ilya Mikheyev dropped the gloves with Sam Bennett. Bennett didn’t like a heavy hit, and Mikheyev didn’t like Bennett holding his sweater as he tried to skate back into the play. They took matters into their own hands.
- The Leafs recalled defenseman Carl Dahlstrom from the AHL’s Marlies on an emergency basis, though he did not dress against Florida.
- Blue-liner Jake Muzzin also did not dress and was said by Keefe to be “doing well. All things considered, because of what he’s been dealing with, he’s been feeling good and progressing every day.” The Leafs have not revealed Muzzin’s injury, only to say that it is not related to the concussions he suffered this season.
- Defenseman Rasmus Sandin (knee) and forward Ondrej Kaše (concussion) worked out at home. Said Keefe: “Sandin will start to progress towards full practices for our team when we get back. Kaše, I am not certain.”
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