Maple Leafs’ ‘Big 4’ step up in bounce-back win against desperate, talented Panthers

Auston Matthews had a pair of goals and John Tavares dished three assists as the Toronto Maple Leafs handled the Florida Panthers 6-2.

SUNRISE — With their best defenceman getting a rest, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Big 4 forwards stepped up.

Forty-eight hours after their worst loss of the season, the Maple Leafs were on the other end of a lopsided score, beating the Florida Panthers 6-2 at FLA Live Arena on Thursday night in Sunrise.

The win was notable not only because Toronto bested a hard-charging Florida team that’s battling for a playoff berth, but also because — after failing to do so a couple of times in recent outings against the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres — the Leafs got the lead and locked it in, keeping the Panthers off the board in a third period that began with Toronto holding a two-goal advantage.

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“That’s obviously what we want to do, that’s what we want to be about,” said Auston Matthews, whose squad was coming off a 7-2 loss to a New York Islanders on Tuesday. “We’ve been a team that’s been consistently good with that and I think, as of late, slipped a little bit. I think this is good for us as a whole just to kind of gain that confidence back and close out a game like we did tonight.”

They did it with an 11-forward, seven-defenceman lineup that saw coach Sheldon Keefe give No. 1 D-man Morgan Rielly the night off in the middle of a hectic stretch. With Rielly watching, Matthews bagged two goals, John Tavares had three assists, Mitch Marner went 1-1-2 to extend his point streak to eight games and William Nylander snapped a four-game pointless streak with a goal and a helper. All of that helped set the stage for a final 20 minutes Keefe was very pleased with, especially against a desperate, talented Panthers squad.

“It’s a great challenge because of the weapons they have and how they play, how skilled they are,” he said. “I thought our guys did a real nice job of really giving them nothing in the third period and then through that you get your own opportunities to extend your lead and we did, so it’s great.”

The Leafs were outshot for the sixth straight time, but Matt Murray — coming off a 48-save performance on Saturday in Ottawa — was solid again.

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“First, our guys did a really good job in front of him,” Keefe said. “I think that’s important, that’s a very, very dynamic offensive team that we played against and we really limited their opportunities. But anything that did kind of break free or look dangerous, he made it look easy.”

Indeed, even when the Panthers did score, the most impressive part of the play may have actually belonged to Murray. After Matthews opened the scoring in the first, Florida pulled even on the power play when Matthew Tkachuk scored a goal that was, in a sense, also a save by Murray. Video review was required to determine that while Murray caught Tkachuk’s shot, the puck did in fact just cross the line inside Murray’s glove, a snag that came directly on the heels of the goalie making a circus save while facing the opposite direction on Tkachuk’s first sharp-angle attempt.

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“It was a heart-breaker,” Murray said with a grin. “That would have been maybe the save of my career right there, the first one off my back and then the second one with the glove. But I guess it was clear [that the puck went in]. I didn’t think it was so clear, but I’m probably pretty biased.”

While that goal pulled Florida even, the Leafs went to work early in the second. First, Nylander swished home a feed from Tavares 1:20 into the stanza for a slump-buster that restore the lead. Then, No. 34 scored his 34th of the season and second of the night when he emerged from behind the net, pivoted and put one past goalie Sergei Bobrovsky while linemate Calle Jarnkrok did the dirty work of battling with two Panthers in front of the goal.

“It was just a great screen,” Matthews said. “It was a bit of a muffin I threw at the night, but the goalie didn’t see it and I was able to just pick a spot and get it there. It was just an unbelievable screen by him and [that’s one of] the little things that he does night in and night out that sometimes go unnoticed.”

Naturally, it’s not getting past Keefe, who credited Jarnkrok for the work he does all over the ice regardless of whether he’s playing on the top unit with Matthews and Marner or lower down in the lineup.

“His game is so efficient,” Keefe said. “He forechecks; he tracks; he’s good on defensive-zone walls; he plays a smart game. One of the things that sometimes you don’t think about is that if you’re going to play with Auston and Mitch, you’re going to get really difficult matchups. So it’s not just about being able to make a play or score and produce, you’ve got to be able to defend and play against other teams’ best people and ‘Jarni’ does that for us no matter where he is in the lineup.”

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While the Cats were able to cut the lead to one goal later in the frame, the Leafs extended it once again when — after 71 games without one — they finally received their first five-on-three power-play of the year. Keefe immediately called a timeout and, sure enough, 22 seconds into the two-man advantage — and with just 1:39 left in the period — Tavares found Michael Bunting for a one-timer.

“It’s been a long wait for one, for sure,” Keefe said. “So we’re glad we’re glad to get it. [And] it’s nice for the guys to come through, it’s an important time in the game.”

That was still true when Tavares picked up his third first assist of the night by hanging onto the puck, absorbing contact and finding Alex Kerfoot in front for the latter’s first goal in 26 games. That made it 5-2 late in the third, setting the table for an empty-netter from Marner and a really happy coach after the game.

“I thought John Tavares was excellent tonight,” Keefe said.

He was. And he had lots of company.

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