SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers enter Monday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on a much different note than when the faced them last month.
Florida went to Toronto on March 29 riding a four-game losing streak with its playoff hopes dwindling by the minute.
The Panthers ended up coming back and winning 3-2 in overtime that night, a victory which sparked a six-game winning streak that now has them on top of a climactic three-team race to the finish for two Eastern Conference wild card spots.
After having their season appear on the brink of elimination in Toronto, Florida could could clinch a playoff spot tonight.
To do that, the Panthers need to win and the Washington Capitals need to beat the New York Islanders in regulation.
”It’s up to us,” Florida captain Sasha Barkov said.
”The last few games, we took it as a game at a time, a shift a time so we don’t think too much ahead. We know it’s a big game tonight and it’s going to be even bigger the next game. But we just have to get ready for tonight, prepare yourself and play as hard as possible.”
While the Maple Leafs do not have anything to play for standings wise — they clinched home ice in a first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning — it certainly will not be easy.
Toronto is likely to dress all of their star players as they use their final three games to gear up for the postseason.
That includes Mitch Marner, who is two points away from hitting the 100 mark for the first time in his career.
There is a lot of pressure facing them as they enter the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs having not won a playoff series since 2004.
They now have the longest drought in the NHL after Florida broke its 26-year dry spell last season.
“I don’t think they are going to take their foot off it right now because they are prepping for something and it’s something that they want to be right on,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
“That first round gets talked about a lot in Toronto so they want to be ready for that. I think they go fast and they go hard. A skilled team sometimes not having as much pressure makes them even more dangerous because they came make those plays. They are not missing the playoffs if they force something into the middle but if it goes, it goes.”
Florida is rolling with the same lineup they have been during their six-game winning streak and that includes Alex Lyon in net.
Despite Sergei Bobrovsky‘s availability as a back-up following his recovery from illness, Lyon has made it hard to take him out of the lineup.
The 30-year-old has a .956 save percentage and a shutout during the six-game winning streak.
“The first time [he was up] it was all well and compete. He was covering a lot of ice in the net and making saves with different parts of his body. Whatever it took,” Maurice said.
“The second time he has come in and just been settled and efficent. He’s been square and, as goalies do when they get into a rhythm, he has made some tough saves look very easy.
”He’s been settled in the net and guys love him because of his personality and his work ethic in the off time. There was a stretch where he was not playing a lot of games when we were at home and he worked his butt off in practice and had fun and guys appreciate that.”
Sam Bennett has been ruled out for Monday night’s game as he continues to heal from a groin injury he has been dealing with since mid-February.
Maurice said that he is progressing well after skating on his own for a week and will re-join the team for a full practice on Tuesday.
There is a possibility he could return to the lineup for Florida’s regular season finale against the Hurricanes depending on how he feels after Tuesday’s practice.
Matthew Knies joined the Maple Leafs in South Florida after losing in the NCAA title game with the University of Minnesota in Tampa on Saturday.
The 2021 second-round pick had 21 goals and 42 points in 40 games in his sophomore season with the Golden Gophers.
Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe will announce whether or not he will make his NHL debut against the Panthers at approximately 4:30 p.m. on Monday.
If Knies does not play, the Maple Leafs will run with 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
PANTHERS ON DECK
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Monday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- Streaming ONLY: ESPN+, Hulu
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- DraftKings odds — Panthers favored: Money Line (-150); Puck line (-1.5, +160); Over/Under 7 (+105/-125)
- Season Series (Toronto leads 2-1): Maple Leafs 5, Panthers 4 OT (Jan. 17); Maple Leafs 6, Panthers 2 (Mar. 23); Panthers 3, Maple Leafs 2 OT (March 29)
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Toronto leads 47-36-7, 7 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday vs. Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m.
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINEUP
23 Carter Verhaeghe // 16 Sasha Barkov // 10 Anthony Duclair
27 Eetu Luostarinen // 15 Anton Lundell // 19 Matthew Tkachuk
94 Ryan Lomberg // 12 Eric Staal // 13 Sam Reinhart
21 Nick Cousins // 6 Colin White // 54 Givani Smith
42 Gus Forsling // 5 Aaron Ekblad
18 Marc Staal // 62 Brandon Montour
28 Josh Mahura // 7 Radko Gudas
34 Alex Lyon
72 Sergei Bobrovsky
Scratched: Casey Fitzgerald
Injured: Patric Hornqvist (LTIR-concussion), Sam Bennett (groin)
PROJECTED TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS LINEUP
58 Michael Bunting // 34 Auston Matthews // 16 Mitch Marner
91 John Tavares // 90 Ryan O’Reilly // 88 William Nylander
15 Alexander Kerfoot // 52 Noel Acciari // 23 Matthew Knies
12 Zach Aston-Reese // 64 David Kampf
22 Jake McCabe // 78 T.J. Brodie
55 Mark Giordano // 3 Justin Holl
44 Morgan Rielly // 37 Timothy Liljegren // 2 Luke Schenn
35 Ilya Samsonov
60 Joseph Woll
Projected Maple Leafs lines courtesy of Mark Masters.