Maple Leafs-Panthers series now a hockey fan's dream after barnburner

Jonathan Huberdeau scored two goals, including the game-winner in overtime, and recorded three assists as the Florida Panthers overcame a four-goal deficit to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-6.

SUNRISE, Fla. — If the Toronto Maple Leafs ever bless their fans with a snowbird series in Florida, the games will be up for grabs and the entertainment value will be off the charts.

Do you enjoy goals? Ten-bell saves?

How about hits? Superstars? Busted records?

Wild swerves in momentum and surprise plot twists?

The Maple Leafs’ barn-burning back-to-back in the Sunshine State featured some high-event, high-octane, high-anxiety hockey.

Call it a potential playoff preview. 

Call it a collapse.

Call it a comeback.

Or simply call it a fun night at the rink.

The only thing Toronto’s hectic 7-6 overtime loss to the top-seed Florida Panthers Tuesday did not provide was a dull moment.

Starting goalies Sergei Bobrovsky and Erik Källgren were each excellent — and perfect at 5-on-5 — during a back-and-forth first period that ended 1-1 on the strength of power-play goals by Sam Reinhart and William Nylander, rebounding from illness.

Period 2 was an altogether different and untamed beast.

Mitch Marner whipped up his magic early, scoring the Leafs’ league-leading 13th shorthanded goal and following with a power-play strike 37 later — the shortest span between a PK and PP goal ever. (Mario Lemieux held the previous record at 47 seconds, in 1989.)

By the time Colin Blackwell converted on a beautiful 5-on-5 rush sequence, the visitors had scored three goals on three shots on three strengths in 94 seconds.

Exit Bobrovsky. Enter Spencer Knight.

A healthy Jake Muzzin sniped next, getting on the board in his first appearance in more than six weeks.

“Muzz is a huge guy in our locker room. He's just a huge presence.,” Jason Spezza said. “He looks like he hasn’t missed a day.”

In a blink, the Maple Leafs led 5-1… against a team with an NHL-best 24 comeback wins.

Naturally, Florida, which allowed five in a row, scored the next five. A deafening run that included Claude Giroux’s first as a Panther; five points from Jonathan Huberdeau, giving him 102 on the year; and a brutal long-range shot from Radko Gudas that slipped through Källgren.

Källgren escaped the mayhem late in the second after taking a Robert Hagg shot off the lower portion of his face mask, tagging in a cold Jack Campbell. (Källgren would return to the bench in the third and was deemed “fine” postgame by coach Sheldon Keefe.)

Aleksander Barkov seemingly ended the madness midway through the third, and FLA Live exploded when the home team clawed back 6-5.

But a late John Tavares power-play goal tied the thing again.

“You don’t want wild swings in the game. When you get control like we had in the game, you want to lock it down,” Spezza said. “It's a game we have to learn from.”

Then Huberdeau drove the OT dagger.

Step back from this fast and heavy hour-plus of hockey — with its 84 shots, 42 high-danger chances and 13 goals — and you see a beautiful mess, an abstract painting open to interpretation.

Spezza sees no excuse to lose.

Keefe sees untidy details — another too-many-men call, a softy through Källgren, a Kyle Clifford slashing penalty late, sloppy PK work — but chooses, ultimately, the positive.

"I'm going to focus on the fact that we played another good game,” Keefe said. “I was looking to come out of this segment with a sense of whether we can compete with the very best in our division. I think that answer is unequivocally yes."

Yes, the Maple Leafs can hang with the elite. And certainly score on them.

Yes, they still have kinks to iron out.

“This back-to-back within Florida, with Tampa and the Panthers, it's been like a flashing light in the schedule all season,” Keefe had said prior to puck drop.

The shade of that light? 

Red, unequivocally.

Fox’s Fast 5

• The Maple Leafs lead the NHL with 13 bench minors. It’s an issue.

Reinhart took advantage of a too-many-men call on Toronto, scoring the first of five consecutive Florida goals.

Crack a window, and the Cats will crawl in.

• With a pair of power-play markers, Reinhart set career highs in goals (26) and points (68) Tuesday. He’s a plus player for the first time in his NHL career and bound for his first postseason — eight years after being drafted second overall by Buffalo.

• The four Atlantic powers, head-to-head: Maple Leafs 5-1-1; Panthers 4-2-1; Bruins 3-3-1; Lightning 3-5-1.

“It’s great to play the really good teams. We rise to the occasion,” Spezza said. “Our team stacks up well against everyone.”

• Keefe says scratching Ilya Lyubushkin made for a tough decision.

“We truly have seven guys that cannot just play every night but play in any situation. That’s a big factor here,” said the coach, in favour of internal competition.

“We love what Boosh has brought to us, so he’ll be back in before long.”

• The Maple Leafs have faced the Panthers twice now… and Joe Thornton hasn’t participated in either game. April 23 will be the final shot a revenge match.

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