Florida Panthers at Toronto Maple Leafs game preview
Jaromir Jagr isn’t hung up on the Florida Panthers winning the Atlantic Division, but that might take care of itself if the team accomplishes what the veteran is aiming for.
"Playing very good hockey going into the playoffs" will most certainly include beating the worst team in the league, and the Panthers play three of their final 12 games against Toronto beginning with Thursday night’s matchup to conclude a three-game road trip.
The Maple Leafs, however, are a game away from matching their top winning streak of the season.
After Tuesday’s 4-1 win in Montreal, the Panthers (39-22-9) again find themselves atop the Atlantic, with Boston a point back and Tampa Bay two behind. Jagr is focused on the ice rather than the numbers.
"Through my experience, it’s nice to win a division, but the main thing is to be playing very good hockey going into the playoffs, if we make it," the 44-year-old said. "I saw a lot of teams that clinch five or 10 games before.
"They are resting players and then, in the first round, they’re upset. The team wasn’t ready to play against teams that were fighting until the last game to make the playoffs. It’s good to win it, but on the other side, I’d rather fight to the end."
Over a 3-1-1 span, things have improved offensively for the Panthers, averaging 4.00 goals after managing seven over a 1-3-0 stretch.
Aleksander Barkov scored for a third straight game Tuesday and has four in his last five, Nick Bjugstad has scored in consecutive contests, while Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau each have eight points in five games. Trocheck had a goal and an assist against the Canadiens and has 24 of his 48 points in the last 23 games.
"He’s playing very well lately," Jagr told the team’s official website. "He’s skating and he’s got a lot of confidence, and he’s shooting the puck with a lot of confidence. He’s a very underrated player. I’m glad he’s underrated. People don’t pay attention to him too much, but on the team we know how good he is."
Special teams have factored into the five-game span with a 4-of-15 mark on the power play while going 10 of 11 on the penalty kill. Toronto, meanwhile, hasn’t given up a power-play goal in 15 chances over the last six games.
The series started with Florida’s 5-1 home win Jan. 26 with a goal and an assist from Trocheck, Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen. The Panthers have won six of the last seven matchups behind 4.00 goals per game.
The Maple Leafs (24-34-11), however, have limited their last two opponents to one goal. That came in Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over Tampa Bay to begin a six-game homestand, putting them in position for their third three-game win streak of the season.
It was also the first time they scored four non-shootout goals since a 5-4 overtime loss to Philadelphia on Feb. 20, going 3-7-1 between those efforts with 1.73 goals per game.
"We want to establish a winning feeling in this room and over the last week or so I think we’ve improved on that, and it’s always good for your confidence when you’re winning games," said Ben Smith, who scored his first goal in 15 games this season and added an assist. "You want to keep bringing that effort and improve on the things that we’re not doing as well."
Goaltending has been a big part of the back-to-back wins with Jonathan Bernier posting a .985 save percentage.
Likely counterpart Roberto Luongo is 2-2-0 with a 3.66 goals-against average and .871 save percentage in his last five games, but he’s 5-0-0 with 1.83 and .932 marks in his past six against Toronto.