Maple Leafs-Panthers Preview
After answering challenges from their two main competitors, the Florida Panthers are back in control of the Atlantic Division.
Beginning with Tuesday night's matchup with the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs, they'll face a seemingly easier path over the remainder of the regular season.
Florida (42-24-9) briefly regained sole possession of first place with Saturday's 5-2 win at Tampa Bay, two days after it routed fellow Atlantic contender Boston 4-1 as part of a daunting three-game trip. Though the Lightning pulled back even in the standings with Monday's 3-0 win over the Maple Leafs, the Panthers own a game in hand on their in-state rivals.
The Panthers' next task will be avoiding a letdown from those two high-stakes victories with a schedule that could trigger one. Their final seven regular-season games are against teams currently out of the playoff picture, including two against a Toronto team they've dominated twice this season.
"We still have to keep getting points, we haven't clinched anything," goaltender Roberto Luongo said. "The key is just taking it one game at a time."
Florida also faces New Jersey and Montreal on a three-game homestand it opens against Toronto (27-37-11), which hasn't helped the Panthers' quest for their second division title in 22 seasons with recent losses to the Bruins and Lightning.
The Maple Leafs did have their opportunities in the last defeat, outshooting Tampa Bay 34-18, but finished 0 for 7 on a power play that's 3 for 32 over the last nine games.
''We carried the play early and then they scored a couple, and I thought we sagged,'' coach Mike Babcock said. ''We had a real good second, still had chances in the third.''
Toronto has managed one goal in its last two after recording 15 over a three-game winning streak prior to Saturday's 3-1 loss to Boston. It's received more consistent results from goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who's allowed two goals or less in five consecutive starts.
Bernier will attempt to slow down a Florida offense that's been rolling of late. Vincent Trocheck has been particularly hot, scoring in four straight and amassing six goals over the last nine.
"I think he's the biggest surprise of the season," Jaromir Jagr said of the 22-year-old Trocheck. "I'm really enjoying the way he's playing. It's not all about the goals. The coaches are giving him a lot of responsibility and he is doing well with it."
Jussi Jokinen has four goals and four assists over a five-game point streak and recorded at least one point in 15 of the last 16. The veteran forward scored twice in a 4-1 win at Toronto on March 17, while he and Trocheck had a goal and an assist in a 5-1 home rout of the Leafs on Jan. 26.
Luongo stopped 54 of 56 shots in those two games to add to his outstanding career numbers against Toronto. The 2016 All-Star is 15-1-0 with a 1.90 goals-against average in 18 starts against the Maple Leafs since January 2007.
Luongo enters Tuesday's matchup off a pair of sharp efforts, compiling 33 saves against Tampa Bay and 34 versus Boston.