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Florida Panthers Pregame: Cats, Leafs battle in duel for the Atlantic

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Toronto native Carter Verhaeghe will have family and friends watching as his Florida Panthers take on his hometown Maple Leafs. — Photo @ColbyDGuy

SUNRISE — Carter Verhaeghe is going to have some extra eyes on him as the Florida Panthers take on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.

The Toronto native said his family and friends will be watching him take on their hometown team as the two battle it out for the Atlantic Division title.

“It’s always exciting playing these guys,” Verhaeghe said.

“My buddies always watch the Toronto games, they are Leafs fans, so there would be nothing better than to beat them.”

Verhaeghe grew up a fan of the team as well.

He went to Maple Leafs games as a kid, sporting a Mats Sundin jersey.

Sundin, who played in Toronto from 1994-2008, owns franchise records in both goals (420) and points (987).

He will have company in those categories sooner rather than later, however.

Auston Matthews recently passed Wendel Clark for 15th all-time in points.

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Matthews, 24, has 253 goals, which is good for ninth in team history, and 443 points in his 398 game career.

“He’s playing at the highest level in the league right now,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said.

“The difference between him and a lot of other great players is that the release of his show is just so deadly and his ability to break you down with his feet and his skill.”

This season, he leads the NHL in goals with 54 and sits fifth in points with 92.

“He keeps you honest with his shot,” Brunette said.

“He has the quickest release I’ve seen in a long time. We saw last night that it doesn’t take much room for him to get that shot off, so that’s something you have to be aware of.

“Some guys you might play differently because they are more of a playmaker. He is still a playmaker, but he is also the best shooter in the league.”

Matthews led the Maple Leafs to a 6-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday with a hat trick.

Brunette did not sleep restfully after watching that.

“It’s that time of year, you’re watching teams and it was a fun hockey game last night,” he said after Tuesday’s morning skate.

“They’re playing well right now, so it’s going to be a big test.”

The Maple Leafs sit seven points behind the Atlantic Division-leading Panthers, so this game has a lot of implications.

If Florida wins in regulation, it would have a nearly-double digit lead in points over second place in the division.

If Toronto wins in regulation, the Panthers’ cushion over the Leafs shrinks to five points.

“You like to play against the best teams in the league, so it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Gus Forsling said.

The Maple Leafs have been playing like one of the best teams in the league as of late.

They are currently on a five-game winning streak where they have outscored their opponents 30-14.

That winning streak started on March 27 with a 5-2 win over the Panthers in Toronto.

Now, Florida looks to put an end to it at FLA Live Arena on Tuesday.

“We just have to play our game here on home ice,” Brunette said.

“They’ve been playing exceptionally, especially since we played them, so it’s going to be a big challenge.”

Morning Skate Updates

  • Sergei Bobrovsky will be the starting goaltender for the Panthers on Tuesday against the Maple Leafs.
  • Patric Hornqvist skated with the main group during Tuesday’s morning skate, but he will likely be out of the lineup. Joe Thornton skated on his usual spot on the fourth line. Brunette: “He is day-to-day and he should be cleared to go here. He hasn’t practiced, but we’ll see where he’s at after this”
  • Noel Acciari did not skate with the team Tuesday morning. Brunette says that Acciari is day-to-day and he hopes to get him back in practices sometime this week.

UP NEXT FOR THE FLORIDA PANTHERS 

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS

  • When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise 
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida
  • Radio: WQAM 560-AM/SiriusXM
  • Last season: Did not play
  • All-time regular season series: Toronto leads 45-34-5, 7 ties
  • Season series — Toronto leads 1-0: @Toronto 5, Florida 2 (March 27)

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