April 17th, 2024

Matthews scores two more, Leafs hang on to beat Panthers in potential playoff preview

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on April 1, 2024.

Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Matthew Knies (23) celebrates scoring against the Florida Panthers during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Monday, April 1, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO – Auston Matthews scored his NHL-leading 61st and 62nd goals of the season to go along with an assist as the Toronto Maple Leafs built a 5-1 lead before hanging on late to down the Florida Panthers 6-4 in a potential first-round playoff preview Monday.

Nick Robertson and Matthew Knies also had a goal and an assist each for Toronto (43-22-9), while Tyler Bertuzzi and David Kampf provided the rest of the offence.

Ilya Samsonov made 27 saves for the Leafs, who were minus five regulars – including star winger Mitch Marner (high ankle sprain) for an 11th straight game.

Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal and two assists for Florida (47-23-5). Sam Reinhart, with his 52nd of the season, and Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour also scored. Sergei Bobrovsky allowed five goals on 16 shots through two periods before getting the hook. Anthony Stolarz made eight saves in relief.

The Leafs, who sit third in the Atlantic Division and would have played Florida if the playoffs started Monday, had a chance to clinch a post-season berth for an eighth consecutive year, but results elsewhere didn’t go their way.

The Panthers, meanwhile, could have overtaken the Boston Bruins for first in the Atlantic with a victory.

Toronto, which fell to Florida in an emphatic five games in the second round of last spring’s post-season on the Panthers’ march to the Stanley Cup final, opened the scoring at 13:59 of the first period when Robertson scored his 12th goal of the campaign on a breakaway following a turnover at the Leafs’ blue line.

Matthews, who became just the ninth different player in NHL history to twice hit 60 goals in a season in Saturday’s 3-0 victory over the Sabres in Buffalo, doubled the lead 33 seconds later when T.J. Brodie circled Florida’s net and found the sniper in front for his 61st.

Samsonov picked up his third shutout of the campaign over the weekend, and kept the Panthers off the scoreboard later in the period on a power play when he reached back to scoop a puck off the goal line after getting a piece of Bennett’s initial shot.

Florida got on the board 47 seconds into the second when Montour’s effort through a screen beat Samsonov for his seventh, but Bertuzzi took a pass from Matthews at the lip of Bobrovsky’s crease 39 seconds later to bag his 19th.

Samsonov then made a huge stop on Anton Lundell that had the Scotiabank Arena crowd on its feet.

Kampf scored his seventh for a 4-1 advantage at 8:32 after Leafs enforcer Ryan Reaves won a puck battle behind Florida’s net.

Knies, who fed Robertson’s breakaway pass on Toronto’s opener, added his 13th off a Pontus Holmberg setup for a 5-1 lead through 40 minutes.

Tarasenko got one back at 2:12 of the third when he tipped 22nd – and fifth since being acquired from the Ottawa Senators ahead of last month’s trade deadline – on a nice deflection from the slot.

Reinhart made it 5-3 with 8:02 left in regulation with his 52nd as the Panthers continued to push before Bennett got Florida within one with 1:50 remaining with his ninth.

But Matthews scored his 62nd into an empty net to seal it after some nervy moments.

RIELLY RAMPING UP

Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly (upper-body injury) took part in the optional morning skate and could rejoin the group for Tuesday’s practice.

Toronto forward Calle Jarnkrok (hand) along with defencemen Joel Edmundson (undisclosed) and Timothy Liljegren (upper-body) remain sidelined.

FRONT-ROW SEAT

Reaves wasn’t around for Matthews’ first 60-goal campaign in 2021-22. The big winger is enjoying the ride this season.

“I’m soaking it in,” he said Monday morning. “It’s fun to watch. I’ve had better seats than anybody.”

UP NEXT

Florida: Visits the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday.

Toronto: Hosts the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2024.

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