Coming off a disappointing three-game homestand on Sunday that saw the opponents walk out of the building with the winner’s share of the points, it was important the Florida Panthers started off their two-game Canadian road swing on a high note. Tuesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Panthers did that, and then some. A two goal outburst :19 apart late in the second period helped open a 3-0 lead, sent starting Leafs netminder Jonas Gustavsson to the bench and helped lead a chorus of boos that rained down upon the Air Canada Centre. The Cats added two more in the third against the Northeast Division leaders to cruise to a 5-1 win.
Five different Panthers scored goals, and even more surprisingly, those goals came from players NOT on the first line. Jack Skille was finally rewarded for a season’s worth of hard work when he buried a shot into an open cage midway through the first period. The goal, his first of the season, was a just reward for a guy who has played just about every shift this season like he was shot out of a cannon. It was the only goal of the period, a session the Panthers largely controlled and outshot the Leafs 14-8.
Much of the second period was dominated by Toronto’s play. They peppered Jose Theodore‘s cage for 18 shots in the period but couldn’t get one past him. Any momentum the strong Toronto play generated was quickly erased after Gustavsson (who, known as ‘The Monster’, possesses the worst nickname for an extremely pedestrian goalie) horribly misplayed a puck behind his net that Skille corralled and fed to a streaking Marco Sturm, who calmly flipped the puck over Gustavsson (Sturm’s first as a Panther) to make it 2-0. A few second later, Tomas Kopecky took a pass from Scottie Upshall up the left wing and fired a shot the hit the goal post and found it’s way in to make it 3-0 and ended Gustavsson’s night.
Ben Scrivens didn’t fare much better in goal for the Leafs, as Sean Bergenheim welcomed him to the game with a goal with just over two minutes gone in the third. Phil Kessel ended Theodore’s shutout big a minute later when he banged one home at close range a minute later. Unlike Sunday night, when the Panthers blew a 3-0 lead to lose to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a shootout, Kessel’s goal didn’t trigger any comeback as Theodore, the game’s first star, withstood a barrage of Toronto chances the rest of the period. Shawn Matthias put the nail in the Leaf coffin when he threw an innocent looking backhanded shot from the goal line that somehow got past Scrivens to get us to our 5-1 final.
There’s a ton of things to love about tonight’s game. First and foremost is the heavy contribution of the ‘secondary’ lines for the second consecutive game. Tuesday’s game was probably the perfect embodiment of the hope of what this team can be: balanced scoring coupled with strong goaltending. You have to be happy with for Skille, who has hustled, battled, fought all season long, getting his name in the scoring ledger. Keaton Ellerby recorded his first point of the season while compiling a +4 rating on the night. Kopecky’s goal was his second in as many games, while Upshall’s assist on the tally was his third point of the year. And you have to be impressed by the strong play from Theodore, who became the most unpopular player with the fans when Jacob Markstrom was sent back to San Antonio of the AHL on Monday.
But, although it may seem trivial, playing well in Toronto, the center of the Canadian hockey media is important in terms of perception. Coming into the game, there were several positive stories coming from the Great White North giving the Cats credit for their surprising (to them, anyway) start. Pounding the Leafs on their home ice with the eyes of the Toronto media in the house to witness it will go a long way in raising the team’s profile league wide. And while the Leafs have a playoff drought to rival the Panthers, playing there is still akin to playing against the Cowboys in Dallas in the NFL or against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in the NBA. And on this night, the Panthers rose to the challenge of playing on one of the biggest stages this league has to offer.
The win moves the Cats regular season record to 7-4-3 and ties them with New York Rangers for 6th in the Eastern Conference with 17 points. And don’t looks now, but the Panthers are in second place in the Southeast Division, just one point behind the Washington Capitals.
You can check out the reaction from our Fansided colleagues in Toronto at Editor-In-Leaf.
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