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Maple Leafs All But Cement First-Round Matchup With Panthers

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Florida panthers Toronto Maple Leafs
Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) stops Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews from scoring during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Michael Laughlin)

With a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils, the Toronto Maple Leafs all but cemented a date in the first round with the Florida Panthers.

Auston Matthews picked up his 66th goal of the year (and his 49th even-strength goal of the year) and an assist to propel Toronto to victory.

Only 10 times in NHL history has a player scored 50 even-strength goals in a season, and Matthews could have the 11th with just one more.

His 66 goals are also the most in the Salary Cap Era, officially passing Alex Ovechkin’s tally of 65 from 2007-08 on Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, the win both knocked New Jersey out of playoff contention and put the Maple Leafs far ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Toronto now has a six-point lead over Tampa Bay with four games to go on each team’s schedule.

In other words, they could lock up at least the third seed in the Atlantic as early as Thursday if they defeat the Devils (again) and the Lightning loses to the Ottawa Senators.

Speaking of Ottawa, the Panthers kept their distance from Toronto by beating the Senators 2-0 on Thursday.

They have a three-point lead over Toronto for the two seed in the Atlantic Division and home ice in a likely first-round series.

The Boston Bruins lost 4-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday but hold a three-point lead over Florida which would require a late-season collapse to squander with three games remaining for each squad.

It should be a fun race to the finish both in the Atlantic Division and in the Eastern Conference in general.

Florida’s last game of the season against Toronto could mean a whole lot if the Maple Leafs can run the table leading up to it.

FLORIDA HOCKEY NOW

It was the Anthony Stolarz show in Sunrise last night.

He picked up a 25-save shutout and an impressive primary assist to help the Panthers to a 2-0 win over the Senators.

— Florida played nice with Ottawa in what is usually a bloodthirsty matchup, writes Alan Greenberg. They still showed flashes of it with some fights early on.

— The Panthers gave Oliver Ekman-Larsson some rest on Tuesday.

Jacques Martin’s second coaching stint with the Senators is coming to an end. But his work in Ottawa may just be getting started.

— Although it does not look like the Panthers will variate from their lineup tonight, they could be rotating some players in during this four-game homestand.

— So, what’s next for the Panthers?

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NATIONAL HOCKEY NOW

The New York Islanders soared ahead of the pack for the third seed in the Metropolitan Division with a 4-2 win over the New York Rangers.

— To add insult to injury for the Philadelphia Flyers’ dwindling playoff hopes, they lost in a 6-1 thrashing to the Montreal Canadiens.

— Devils star Jack Hughes is out for the season.

— Colorado Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon scored his 50th goal of the year on Tuesday.

— The Detroit Red Wings lost an all-important clash with the Washington Capitals and now have an uphill battle to stay in the wild card race.

— So, which team in the Eastern Conference wild card race has the easiest path to the playoffs?

ON DECK

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS

  • When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL/Panthers App
  • Last Season: Florida won 2-1
  • This Season (Florida leads 2-0) — At Florida: Panthers 5, Jackets 4 OT (Nov.6); Thursday. At Columbus: Panthers 5, Blue Jackets 2 (Dec. 10)
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Columbus leads 26-19-4
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Saturday vs. Buffalo, 5 p.m.

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