|Maple Leafs look to fend off Panthers in pivotal clash|
Two teams battling for third place in the Atlantic Division are set to meet Thursday when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Fla.
The Maple Leafs have 74 points with 18 games remaining in the regular season. Florida, in turn, has 72 points with 19 games left.
Catching the top two teams in the Atlantic Division -- the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning -- feels like an impossibility, and the two Eastern Conference wild-card berths likely will be ticketed for teams from the Metropolitan Division.
In other words, it likely will be either the Leafs or Panthers in the playoffs -- not both -- and that adds significance to Thursday's game.
"The circumstances are obvious," Toronto captain John Tavares said. "Not much more needs to be said. It's a big game."
Florida, which rallied to a 2-1 victory over the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night, returns home after posting a 3-2-0 record on its recent road trip.
"It's good to feel confident for what will be our biggest game of the year so far," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. "It's huge. We want to be all systems go."
Florida is 2-0-0 against Toronto this season, as it posted an 8-4 win in Sunrise on Jan. 12 and a 5-3 victory on the road Feb. 3.
In the first game, the Panthers led 5-0 and 7-1 in the second period. Toronto pulled now Colorado goaltender Michael Hutchinson after yielding four goals before Frederik Andersen permitted four more.
Earlier this month, the Panthers rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to frustrate the Maple Leafs once again. Hutchinson was also pulled in this game, after allowing three goals. Andersen allowed one goal in his brief relief effort.
Florida's Mike Hoffman has three goals and an assist in the two games against Toronto. Sergei Bobrovsky got the win in that second game, allowing the three goals.
Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews has six goals and 10 points in 14 career games against the Panthers. Tavares has 21 goals and 31 points in 34 career games versus Florida.
As for the Panthers' stars, captain Aleksander Barkov has eight goals and 18 points in 24 games against Toronto.
Jonathan Huberdeau, who has 11 goals and 21 points in 26 career meetings with the Maple Leafs, has nine points in his past seven games overall.
Huberdeau leads the Panthers with 77 points, while Barkov is second with 62. Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov are tied for the team lead with 25 goals each. Defenseman Keith Yandle, Florida's power-play quarterback, has five goals and 38 assists.
Bobrovsky, who is expected to make his 48th start of the season on Thursday, is 23-18-5 with a 3.24 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage.
Matthews leads Toronto in goals (43) and points (74), while fellow stars Mitch Marner (club-best 47 assists, 62 points), William Nylander (28 goals, 56 points) and Tavares (26 goals, 56 points) are also excelling.
Andersen, who made 26 saves in a 4-3 win over the Lightning on Tuesday, is expected to face Florida. He is 26-13-6 with a 2.98 GAA and a .906 save percentage.
Toronto defenseman Jake Muzzin will miss approximately four weeks after suffering a broken right hand against Tampa Bay.
The team confirmed Muzzin's injury on social media Wednesday and announced that defenseman Calle Rosen was recalled from its AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, to help fill the void.
--Field Level Media