SUNRISE — On Thursday night, the Florida Panthers were able to clinch both the Atlantic Division and home ice throughout the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Florida did its part on Thursday by beating Detroit; the Panthers then needed some help from rival Tampa Bay.
The Lightning came through in a big way, humbling the Toronto Maple Leafs with an 8-1 win. That gave the Panthers the division and what will end up being the best record in the Eastern Conference.
But on Saturday night, the bruised Leafs come to Sunrise to play a Florida team that still has something to play for.
Florida can still win the Presidents’ Trophy which goes to the NHL team with the most points at the end of a season.
With Colorado losing in Edmonton on Friday night, the Panthers hold a two-point lead on the Avs with a game in hand.
The Florida Panthers are also trying to set a franchise record with their 13th consecutive win.
Florida has not lost since it went down 5-2 in Toronto back on March 27 and are 8-0 since clinching a playoff spot April 8 in Buffalo.
Coach Andrew Brunette says his team’s focus despite accomplishing what would be considered preseason goals is just one of the traits which makes them a special group.
“You don’t have too many times, in your career or in your life, where you can be on a team like this,’’ Brunette said. “We’re a long, long way from getting to where we want to be, but I think we’ve enjoyed each other. They love playing with each other, they love to compete together and those are all fun signs.
“For me, just to be part of that is pretty special. There’s so much work left to do, but just the day-to-day grind … I think we have to be appreciative and feel that we’re lucky to be part of this. Enjoy the moment, but understand there’s a lot more moments that we need to attain to get the big one.”
Added MacKenzie Weegar: “I think we’ve been pretty hot all year. We just try to build our game every night. That’s been the message down the stretch here: Just keep building our game, the right habits, and that’ll lead to success in the playoffs at the right time. We like to win. It’s been a lot of fun. I don’t think we’d ever take the foot off the gas, even if we had the division locked up either way. We are competitors.”
Toronto will not finish first in the division but still needs to hold off Tampa Bay and Boston to ensure home ice in the opening round.
The Leafs have not escaped the first round of the playoffs since 2004 and certainly would like to open at home when the postseason kicks off in just over a week.
After Thursday, it appears the Leafs will be playing Tampa Bay in the opening round.
Florida, it should be noted, have not won a playoff series since 1996.
The Leafs were playing without star center Auston Matthews who has missed the past three games with an undisclosed injury.
Per a report in the Toronto Sun, Matthews took part in Thursday’s morning skate but did not play.
“He’s really close,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said per the Sun. “He’s on the ice, he is getting his touches, but we’re in a similar place to where we were a couple of days ago, in terms of it just not making sense to put him in the lineup at this point.”
He will play tonight against the Panthers
Defenseman Jake Muzzin has also missed the past three games but has been skating. He will not play tonight.
Jack Campbell will be in net for Toronto; Florida turns to the net to Sergei Bobrovsky.
Spencer Knight is expected to start Sunday against Tampa Bay in the Panthers’ final regular season home game.
Florida not only comes into Saturday’s game riding a 12-game winning streak, but it has won 10 straight at home.
It is the second 10-game home winning streak this season and is one win from tying the franchise record set when the Panthers started the year 11-0 at home.
In NHL history, only two other teams have recorded multiple 10-game home winning streaks in a single season: The 1995-96 Red Wings and 1955-56 Canadiens.
— The Panthers lead the NHL with 33 home wins this season which is tied for third-most in a season in NHL history.
Those Red Wings and the 1975-76 Flyers won 36 each. The best the Panthers can do is 35.
Also, the Detroit and Philadelphia home records came in an era when there was no shootout to determine a winner; the Flyers also played when games ended after 60 minutes and did not have an overtime. So, those two teams won a lot of home games when many games simply ended in a tie.
— Florida’s league-leading 56 wins is for ninth-most in NHL history. The league record for wins in a season is 62 held by (yep) that Detroit squad and the Tampa Bay team which was swept out of the first round by Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets in 2019.
— The Panthers also lead the league with 322 goals this season; that is the most by any NHL team since 1995-96, when Pittsburgh (362), Colorado (326) and Detroit (325) all had more.
— Florida’s 118 points are tied for the sixth-most of any team in one season.
PANTHERS ON DECK
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM/SiriusXM
- Draft Kings odds — Florida favored: Money Line (-155); Puck line (-1.5, +165); Over/Under 7 (-115/-105)
- Last season: Did not play
- All-time regular season series: Toronto leads 45-34-6, 7 ties
- Season series — Tied 1-1: @Toronto 5, Florida 2 (March 27); @Florida 7, Toronto 6; OT(April 5)
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINEUP
11 Jonathan Huberdeau // 16 Sasha Barkov // 10 Anthony Duclair
17 Mason Marchment // 8 Sam Bennett // 28 Claude Giroux
98 Maxim Mamin // 15 Anton Lundell // 13 Sam Reinhart
94 Ryan Lomberg // 27 Eetu Luostarinen // 55 Noel Acciari
8 Ben Chiarot // 52 MacKenzie Weegar
42 Gus Forsling // 62 Brandon Montour
18 Robert Hagg // 7 Radko Gudas
72 Sergei Bobrovsky
30 Spencer Knight
Scratched: Lucas Carlsson, Petteri Lindbohm, Joe Thornton, Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe
Injured: Markus Nutivaara (LTIR), Jonas Johansson (IR), Aaron Ekblad (LTIR)
PROJECTED TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS LINEUP
58 Michael Bunting // 34 Auston Matthews // 16 Mitch Marner
15 Alexander Kerfoot // 91 John Tavares // 88 William Nylander
65 Ilya Mikheyev // 64 David Kampf // 47 Pierre Engvall
43 Kyle Clifford // 11 Colin Blackwell // 24 Wayne Simmonds
44 Morgan Rielly // 46 Ilya Lyubushkin
78 T.J. Brodie // 3 Justin Holl
55 Mark Giordano // 37 Tim Liljegren
36 Jack Campbell
50 Erik Kallgren