SUNRISE — When the Florida Panthers needed a spark against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night, Anthony Duclair was there to create it.
Duclair was known as one of the fastest players in the league, but that was before he sustained an Achilles tendon injury during the offseason.
He spent his time away from the game trying to add a physical element to his game on both ends of the ice.
Looks like he succeeded.
Duclair’s impact was apparent as the Panthers took a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 3-2 victory in Game 3 of their second-round series on Sunday night.
The Duke was back.
In a big way.
“That’s what I’m seeing and that’s what we want to see,” captain Sasha Barkov said. “His speed is incredible — elite in this league — his hands, his skill, the way he makes plays, the way he puts defensemen on their toes, he’s been really good.”
When the Panthers were down early on, Duclair was sprung on a breakaway from a nice outlet pass from Aaron Ekblad and beat replacement goaltender Joseph Woll with a slick deke to tie the game at 1 at 2:36 of the second period.
Duclair was Florida’s spark plug again when it was trailing with 8:10 to go in the second.
He forced a turnover near the blue line and was stopped on a backhand shot. But he did not give up on the play.
Duclair continued to pressure heavy on the forecheck to force another turnover in the offensive zone on the same shift. It allowed the Panthers to sustain pressure in the offensive zone and knot it at 2 with a deflection by Carter Verhaeghe.
“I’m gaining confidence from my defensive end. I’m putting good sticks in, shutting down those top guys, that gives me confidence going into the offensive zone. The more we can be in the offensive zone, the harder it is for them,” Duclair said.
“We all know skill guys don’t want to play defense, so for us, that’s kind of our game plan to get out of the defensive zone as fast as possible, create some chances off the rush and get the cycle going as well.”
That defensive element has been something Duclair has added to his game since he returned from his injury in late February.
Duclair spent months studying coach Paul Maurice’s defense-heavy system and put on some obvious muscle in the weight room while recovering from his lower-body injury.
After a regular season which saw him finish with two goals and nine points in 24 games, Duclair has really put it together in the postseason.
Sunday’s goal was his second in 9 games.
“I’m starting to feel better. It’s obviously tough to miss almost the whole season but now my linemates are giving me so much confidence, and the coaching staff as well,” Duclair said.
”I’ve been watching the video and learning about how to play the system even better than I was in the regular season. This is the time of the year you want to play for.”
Duclair has been a staple on the top line next to Verhaeghe and Barkov after returning from a one-game absence in Game 4 of the first round.
He has two goals and five points in his last six games while taking on the opposing team’s top players.
“I feel awesome,” Duclair said. “It took a lot of work to get there, obviously, but it’s coming at the right time. Not only for me, but for everyone. Individually, we’re all sticking it together and it’s nice to see.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (ATL2) AT FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 4 (Florida Leads 3-0)
- When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV: ESPN
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- First Round Schedule — Game 1: Florida 4, @Toronto 2; Game 2: Florida 3, @Toronto 2; Game 3: @Florida 3, Toronto 2 (OT); Game 4: Wednesday at Florida, 7 (ESPN); Game 5*:Friday, May 12 at Toronto (TNT); Game 6*: Sunday, May 14 at Florida (TBA); Game 7*:May 16 at Toronto (TNT). (*) – If Necessary
- How They Got Here: Toronto d. Tampa Bay 4-2; Florida d. Boston 4-3
- Season Series (Toronto won 3-1): Maple Leafs 5, @Panthers 4 OT (Jan. 17); @Maple Leafs 6, Panthers 2 (Mar. 23); Panthers 3, @Maple Leafs 2 OT (March 29); Maple Leafs 2, @Panthers 1 OT (April 10)
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Toronto leads 48-36-7, 7 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting