Maple Leafs still have eyes on top spot in Atlantic as playoff race heats up

John Tavares scored a pair of goals, Auston Matthews reclaimed the league lead in goals, and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Florida Panthers 5-2.

TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs woke up in wild-card position Sunday morning, but with so many critical dates remaining against the divisional elite, they still have their sights fixed on the No. 1 seed.

So… we’re saying there’s a chance.

“Everything's still up for grabs,” asserted coach Sheldon Keefe. “We can still compete for home ice in the first round. We can still compete to win the division.

“We've kept pace all season.”

In their long-awaited first meeting with the 94-point Beasts of the East, the Florida Panthers, the Leafs didn’t just keep pace, they set it — and dared their visitors to catch up.

“It was a really good 60 minutes for us. Over the last little bit, our game is starting to round a little bit more consistent into a form we would like,” John Tavares said after a solid 5-2 victory over the top cats. “Good attention to detail all around."

“We just remained committed to it all the way right from the start of the game,” agreed Keefe.

“I mean, that's the most dangerous team in the league —maybe save for Colorado — on the rush. And I didn’t think we gave up hardly anything on the rush today.”

Indeed, when facing their fellow Eastern Conference powers, Toronto has looked anything but outclassed. (It’s actually the Leafs’ squandered points against lottery-bound outfits like Buffalo and Montreal that could cost them home ice.)

Rebounding smartly from Saturday’s blown-lead defeat at the Bell Centre, the Maple Leafs executed on special teams, responded to a mid-game bout of adversity, and didn’t break under the Panthers’ late push.

It was the type of entertaining hockey that should warm fans to the idea of seven more of these.

Morgan Rielly drove the net and got his blade on a T.J. Brodie slap-pass just 49 seconds after puck drop, and for the second night in a row the Leafs opened the scoring on the game’s first shift.

Florida — the highest-scoring and most-frequent-shooting team in the NHL — would not be deterred, striking back with goals from Brandon Montour and Ryan Lomberg.

Hardly, the household names one might expect. But these Panthers are deep and come chugging in waves.

"Speed, skill, depth," Keefe said. "Offence can come from any of the four lines. In fact, their third line is equally as productive as their top six. 

“They come with a lot of pace, a lot of competitiveness. They're a physical team. They've been the class of the Eastern Conference.”

When the whistles finally went their way, it was the Leafs’ turn to flip the seesaw battle.

Tavares lurked around the blue paint and used his nifty hands to score consecutive power-play goals off pretty feeds from Mitch Marner in tight.

“He’s as good as anyone in hockey below the hashmarks,” Keefe said.

The captain smiled wide, clearly enjoying his first two-goal outing since Nov. 6 (versus Boston). Tavares has now registered the 10th 60-point campaign in his career.

Marner recorded his third unanswered primary assist by setting up a streaking Ilya Mikheyev, who deked out Spencer Knight like he’s forgotten how to miss one-on-one.

“That’s a big goal by Mickey. He’s making good on these breakaways now,” Keefe smiled wryly, aware of the narrative. “That’s a good development for him and for us. So, his confidence is high.”

Most encouraging of all was the performance of goaltender Petr Mrazek, who improved to 2-0 since clearing waivers Monday — an embarrassing development for an established veteran signed for two seasons beyond this one.

An empathetic Marner described tending goal for the Maple Leafs as “probably the hardest job to [do] in this town or in North America.”

“It’s hard, obviously,” Mrazek confirmed. “Everyone expects you to win here, and we just have to do our job.”

That Mrazek has done this week, linking his first consecutive wins in a month and his first back-to-back starts with a .900-plus save percentage as a Maple Leaf.

Standing tall in a 34-save showing, Mrazek was showered with an ovation from a home fanbase he may be slowly winning over.

“Shows that he's a battler. That he competes. That he believes himself. He was outstanding again tonight. That’s two in a row now that he looks like the goalie that he is and that he has been through his career,” Keefe praised.

“He’s bounced back and responded well to adversity here. It’s a terrific sign and a testament to his character.”

Auston Matthews scored a buzzer-beating empty-netter to increase his goal total to 48.

The frantic four-horse race for the Atlantic Division crown picks up again Tuesday, when the Maple Leafs travel to TD Garden and take on the Bruins.

“These games down the stretch — against Boston, against Florida, against Tampa — are huge for us,” Alexander Kerfoot said.

“Playing Florida three times, the positioning in our division is wide open right now. There can be lots of movement. It’s about getting the points in those games.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Shoooooooooot!

“I actually thought it was gonna come to me,” Marner said. “I just didn’t get my stick down quick enough.”

• William Nylander remained on David Kämpf’s third line, a continuation of Saturday’s line juggle.

"This is a four-line team," Keefe said of Florida. "They're going to come at us here. The way we have things balanced, it makes a lot of sense."

• Harvard star Nick Abruzzese, who signed his entry-level deal Saturday, will meet the Maple Leafs in Boston Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Matthew Knies and the University of Minnesota Gophers advanced to the Frozen Four with a 3-0 win over Western Michigan Sunday. Knies scored the winner.

• The Panthers are rolling with the rare five-forward power-play formation.

With quarterback defenceman Aaron Ekblad injured and PP threat Claude Giroux recently acquired via trade, Florida throws out Giroux, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Anthony Duclair and Sam Reinhart as its PP1.

"Actually, I don't mind it," Barkov, who mans the point, told reporters. "We tried it in the playoffs last year. You have to feel comfortable and confident because you're on top. And if you don't make the right plays, the puck is not going to stay in the zone."

• Nice ovation at Scotiabank Arena during the first TV timeout as the crowd rose to its feet to congratulate Team Canada for qualifying for the World Cup.

Tavares’s commute to work takes him by BMO Field.

“Just a packed house. A great moment in Canadian soccer and for those players, and to see them back in the World Cup is tremendous,” Tavares said. “My dad's from Portugal, and I know a lot of Italians are disappointed with this past week, and they’re both jumping on the Canadian bandwagon. So, good to see.”

Before fielding post-game questions, Keefe congratulated coach John Herdman and his players.

“It's been fun to watch that group. Their competitive spirit and how they've competed for each other and for the country throughout this has been something to behold,” Keefe said.

“They’re on a mission.”

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