TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: 18-13-4 (40 PTS.) vs. FLORIDA PANTHERS: 18-11-7 (43 PTS.)
GAME TIME: 7:30 P.M. EASTERN
OPPOSITION SITE: EDITOR IN LEAF
They say you can’t qualify for the postseason in October and November, but getting off to a fast start this season has surely benefited the Florida Panthers. As injuries have mounted (7 forwards out), so have the recent loses, however the Cats still find themselves with a six point bulge over the Winnipeg Jets atop the Southeast division. Coming off a shutout loss to the Boston Bruins, the battered and bruised Panthers will host the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight in hopes that they will be able to turn things around.
With all the injuries that have occurred, the latest one with center Stephen Weiss who is not playing tonight, will cause the remaining two forwards of the ever potent FlashMob Line (Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg) to likely be split up. In the morning skate today, Flash was on a line with Shawn Matthias and Matt Bradley, while Versteeg was paired with Mike Santorelli and Tomas Kopecky. Coach Kevin Dineen obviously feeling that he needs to balance the scoring by separating Flash and Versteeg has also indicated that dressing seven defencemen hasn’t worked out at all. The team is 0-4 when doing that, therefore Mark Cullen will be brought back up to dress for this evening. With all the injured players, you’d have to agree with George Richards that the Panthers are forced to display a new look.
The Panthers have yet to dress a full lineup all season and Kris Versteeg had this to say about that:
“We need guys to step up, and that means everyone including myself or Michal Repik or Dadonov,’’ said Versteeg, who went into the Christmas break leading the Panthers in goals (16) and points (37). “We should always pride ourselves enough to win no matter who is out there. We haven’t had a full lineup all year, so we’re not going to make excuses now.’’
The Panthers and coach Dineen aren’t using injuries as an excuse, however those that have been waiting for the Panthers to falter will point directly to them as for their recent play. Nonetheless, every team goes through slumps. Sometimes injuries contribute, and sometimes it’s a combination of things. Florida is a competitive team with a dressing room full of veterans and character players that have all been through this before. The upcoming schedule however will give some of the injured players time to heal. This week there are three games in four nights, but then there is a four day break, and over the next 10 days after that, the Panthers only play three times. Finally a chance to heal.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will be making their first of two appearances in Florida tonight, and look to avenge an earlier 5-1 loss to the Panthers. Much like the Panthers, Toronto got off to a quick start, but appeared headed down a similar path earlier this month by going 1-5. Things have turned around after defeating Buffalo and the New York Islanders on back to back nights, the Leafs will be looking for their third straight victory which would tie their season high.
Goaltender James Reimer who missed a month with concussion like symptoms, is finally back and appears to be on track again with a 3-1-1 record to go along with a 2.56 GAA. He has quickly turned things around for himself after giving up 11 goals in his first three games back. The Leafs will need Reimer to keep this steady play up with a tough road trip remaining, as they head to Carolina and Winnipeg before returning home to play nine out of 10.
Still humming along for Toronto is Phil Kessel who leads the team with 20 goals and 41 points, and has 32 points in his past 31 games. Also running hot is forward Joffery Lupul who has 16 goals to go along with 22 assists, and has points in his last 24 games. The good news for the Leafs is that they find themselves in 8th in the league in scoring, but 25th in goals allowed. To say we aren’t sure which team will show up is an understatement.
The injury bug has hit them as well with six players out of their lineup. Like the Panthers, Toronto’s quick start has significantly helped them survive the tough times. Defenseman John Michael Liles is listed as day to day with a neck injury, and it’s not know as of this typing whether he’ll play tonight.
One of my favourite non Panther players Dion Phaneuf seems to be back on track this year not only offensively but defensively as well. Dion playing some of his best hockey seems to be back to his earlier playing days with Calgary after spending about a year settling into coach Ron Wilson’s system. Speaking of Wilson, he received a Christmas present of sorts from the Leafs, when a contract extension was granted to him.
* The Florida Panthers have now lost 129 man games to injury.
* The Panthers have won three straight and five of six on home ice against the Leafs recently.
* The Panthers have been in first place in the Southeast division for 38 consecutive days, and 41 in total.
* Kris Versteeg has 24 points in his last 21 games.
* The Toronto Maple Leafs have lost 128 man games to injury.
* Toronto leads the series all time with a 29-19-7-2 record.
* Joey Crabb has scored six goals this season, all on the road.
* Leaf Forward Phil Kessel currently leads the NHL in All-Star votes with 529,659.
* The Leafs power play is currently ranked fourth in the league. (21.%) They have scored 26 times in 124 chances.
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