The Florida Panthers have already clinched a playoff spot, but their focus will be on bigger things when they face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night at Sunrise, Fla.
The Panthers (48-15-6, 102 points) became the first team this season to officially clinch a postseason berth with their 5-3 road victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday.
“We have eyes on bigger prizes,” Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “We still have work to do.”
They will be facing a hot team on Tuesday.
In the opener of back-to-back games in the state of Florida, the Maple Leafs (45-19-5, 95 points) defeated the host Tampa Bay Lightning 6-2 Monday night.
Auston Matthews scored three goals to tie Rick Vaive’s franchise record for a season of 54 goals (1981-82), putting him in position to make history against the Panthers. Toronto has won five straight.
“These two games were like a flashing light on our schedule for a long time,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said.
The second-place Maple Leafs hold a two-point lead on both the Bruins and the Lightning in the Atlantic Division after Boston beat the host Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 in overtime on Monday. Toronto is seven points behind Florida.
The Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal, obviously, but the Panthers’ immediate goal is maintaining first place in the conference and overtaking the Colorado Avalanche for the best overall record in the NHL.
“To finish first, that’s what we want to do,” said Jonathan Huberdeau, who set a single-season franchise record of 97 points when he scored his 24th goal of the season on Sunday.
The Panthers have not won a postseason series since they reached the 1996 Stanley Cup Final in their third season.
“It’s nice, but we just keep going,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said of sealing a postseason bid. “I don’t even know how many points we have right now, but I know we have a lot because we’ve been playing really well. Our focus now is just getting our game better.”
Last season, Florida took the Lightning to six games in the first round of the playoffs. Tampa Bay went on to win the Stanley Cup for the second straight season.
The Panthers have set single-season franchise records for wins, home wins (28), goals (284) and are one point short of matching the franchise record for points in a season set in 2015-16.
The Panthers still have things to work on.
“With all the goal-scoring, it’s led to some habits we’ve got to clean up a little bit here going forward,” Brunette said. “You just want to make sure we’re playing our best hockey. We’ve been a little sporadic here.”
Matthews added an assist to his hat trick on Monday, and linemate Mitchell Marner had one goal and two assists.
“This is a proud brother moment for me,” Marner said. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
“We’re just blessed to have (Matthews) on this team,” said goaltender Jack Campbell, who made 32 saves for the win. “It’s crazy what he’s done.”
Matthews said, “I just go out there and play hockey and whatever happens, happens. This was a big game for us, obviously, and they’re a really good team, they know how to win. So it was an important game for us. … At this point of the season, all these points really matter.”
Jake Muzzin, who has not played since Feb. 21 due to a concussion, and William Nylander, who sat out Monday due to an illness, could return for Toronto on Tuesday.
–Field Level Media