SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers have 11 games left and are currently a point back of a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. If that was not enough motivation, perhaps a visit from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night is.
“Toronto is playing as well as anyone, made some additions that sort of change them fro the last time we played them,” Matthew Tkachuk said.
“It’s going to be different playing them now. We’re not looking too far ahead, but the Rangers are probably the hottest team in the NHL. The next two, three days will be a big test for our group. Our confidence level is high, especially on home ice. It will be nice to keep that going.”
The Panthers and Maple Leafs will get to know each other quite well over these final weeks as they play three times — with two of the games in Sunrise.
Both teams come into the games coming off losses, one worse than the other.
With the Leafs having a playoff spot already locked down — they’ll either be the second or third seed out of the Atlantic with a postseason rematch with the Lightning forthcoming — their loss to the Islanders on Tuesday really does not mean much.
To them, anyway.
The Islanders win definitely hurt Florida which certainly cannot afford many more losses after getting beat Tuesday night in Philadelphia.
“Every team is going to lose one and we have three teams fighting for their lives right now,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “Pittsburgh lost four straight and that could be a catastrophe but they looked fantastic last night in Colorado. …
“As much as people talking about going on a run at this time of year, the key thing is getting off the mat when you lose, leaving it there. That’s the same mindset in the playoffs. You lose and you have to get right back up on the horse.”
The Panthers played that game without Sam Bennett (lower body) and Anthony Duclair (illness) and will again be without their second-line center.
Bennett did take the ice for morning skate but did not finish and will not play tonight.
Duclair is back in.
Florida will also have Sergei Bobrovsky back in net after he finally took a night off in Philadelphia. Bobrovsky had started 13 consecutive games before Alex Lyon filled in Tuesday.
Bobrovsky is expected to start Florida’s next four games (tonight, Saturday against the Rangers, Monday in Ottawa and Wednesday in Toronto) before Lyon likely returns in Montreal next Thursday.
“We would have liked to get those two in Philly but we did a lot of good things,’’ Tkachuk said. “We had a tough few minutes in the second period there but I don’t think that defines this month of hockey.
“We have given ourselves a chance in this race. We’re right there. It’s basically a three-team race to the finish line for two spots. We’re the team on the outside looking in right now, but I think we’re all up for the challenge. We’re excited for that challenge and the chance to hopefully be playing our best hockey going into the playoffs.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- 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 (-135); Puck line (-1.5, +175); Over/Under 7 (+100/-120)
- Season Series (Toronto leads 1-0): Maple Leafs 5, Panthers 4 OT (Jan. 17)
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Toronto leads 46-35-7, 7 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: New York Rangers at Florida, Saturday, 5 p.m.
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINEUP
15 Anton Lundell // 16 Sasha Barkov // 13 Sam Reinhart
23 Carter Verhaeghe // 27 Eetu Luostarinen // 19 Matthew Tkachuk
94 Ryan Lomberg // 12 Eric Staal // 10 Anthony Duclair
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
72 Sergei Bobrovsky
34 Alex Lyon
Scratched: Casey Fitzgerald
Injured: Patric Hornqvist (LTIR-concussion), Sam Bennett (LBI)
PROJECTED TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS LINEUP
19 Calle Jarnkrok // 34 Auston Matthews // 16 Mitch Marner
58 Michael Bunting // 91 John Tavares // 88 William Nylander
15 Alex Kerfoot // 55 Noel Acciari // 28 Sam Lafferty
12 Zach Aston-Reese // 64 David Kampf // 56 Erik Gustafsson
55 Mark Giordano // 3 Justin Holl
22 Jake McCabe // 37 Timothy Liljegren
44 Morgan Rielly // 2 Luke Schenn
30 Matt Murray
35 Ilya Samsonov