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Panthers aim to deny Matthews a milestone moment

Auston Matthews Auston Matthews - The Canadian Press

The Florida Panthers skated (optional) at Baptist Health IcePlex in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Tuesday. 

Maple Leafs media availability set for 5 p.m. at the Amerant Bank Arena.

The Florida Panthers are hoping to deprive Auston Matthews of a milestone moment. 

"Yeah, absolutely," defenceman Gustav Forsling said. "That's kind of my job to shut him down, so I'm excited for tonight."

Matthews enters Tuesday's penultimate game of the regular season with 69 goals. Only eight players have ever scored 70 in a season. 

"I hope he gets it," said Panthers coach Paul Maurice. "I prefer if it wasn't tonight, but it's a phenomenal story and it's such an unusual thing to happen."  

It hasn't happened since Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny each potted 76 goals in 1992-93, which was the season right before the Panthers entered the NHL.

"Every team knows he's going to score, but he scores anyway," Forsling said. "We got to find a way, try to shut him down, and we're excited for it."

The last-change advantage at home should help. The Panthers will be able to get Forsling and Brandon Montour, their top defence pair, and Aleksander Barkov, their No. 1 centre, out against Matthews on most shifts. 

"I don't remember when was the last time someone scored 70," Barkov said. "Well, he doesn't have 70 yet, but it's still incredible. Like, how many goals he scores and how many different ways, it's incredible."

Matthews is riding a career-long eight-game goal streak, which included a two-goal performance against the Panthers in Toronto on April 1. 

ContentId(1.2105250): Barkov, Forsling aim to deprive Matthews a milestone moment

Florida is allowing the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference this season (2.42 per game) and does have a track record of success against Matthews.

The Panthers kept him off the board in five playoff games last spring and in the first two regular-season games this year. Barkov is a big reason for that success. He's once again in contention for the Selke Trophy. 

Maurice appreciates the "strong and quiet" way the Panthers captain goes about his business both on and off the ice. 

"He will be doing no marketing program for the award," Maurice noted. "What I do think is special is he's in consideration for the Selke and his wingman is a 50-goal man."

Barkov's linemate, Sam Reinhart, is also among the contenders for the award given to the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game. 

"He's never in behind the play and he scored 50," said Maurice. "He wasn't cheating the game. He wasn't staying late on power plays. They weren't force-feeding him. They went out and played the game. For the most part, they play against the other team's best every night and they've each had an exceptional season."

Reinhart is up to 55 goals, which is second most in the NHL, but still 14 back of Matthews. The last season in which the goal-scoring leader finished with this large of a lead was 1999-2000, when Florida's Pavel Bure had 58 goals, which was 14 ahead of San Jose's Owen Nolan. 

The Leafs may be feeding Matthews more than usual on Tuesday. Toronto is locked into third place in the Atlantic Division and Matthews' incredible goal-scoring pace has dominated the discussion around the team. 

Matthews logged 23 minutes and 59 seconds on Saturday, his highest total since Feb. 5. Afterwards, head coach Sheldon Keefe lamented the fact he got caught up in the hype around the chase for 70 goals. 

"I would do the exact same thing," Maurice said. "You get an offensive-zone faceoff and, at this time of year with them locked [in], he's coming out one in four at best, maybe one in six, but when you're sitting on 69 goals and it's an offensive-zone draw, he's coming back out, and you have to."

The Leafs are expected to open the playoffs on Saturday. Toronto will wrap up the regular season on Wednesday in Tampa. 

"There's not a rest issue here," Maurice said. "We're all getting two or three days off after this game ... He's going to be 100 per cent fresh."

ContentId(1.2105245): Maurice on Matthews chasing 70: 'There’s not a rest issue here'


With Max Domi out with an undisclosed injury, Mitch Marner will move back to the right wing spot on Toronto's top line. The dynamic winger is coming off a three-point performance on Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings

Marner has played five games since returning from an ankle injury and now appears to be back in a groove. 

"You can just see his reads, just how quick he's making plays, how on top he is on things," said centre John Tavares. "It's really starting to come for him and flow."

Marner has posted consecutive multi-point games. 

"It takes a couple games kind of to get back into it," Matthews noted on Saturday. "But he's a special player, and it's no surprise that he's kind of found his rhythm, found his groove, in such a quick amount of time."


The Panthers can finish first in the Atlantic Division if they gain a point on the Boston Bruins, who host the Ottawa Senators in their regular-season finale on Tuesday. 

"We'll play to win," Maurice vowed. "We'll dress everybody that's healthy and ready to go, which I like. Not a fan of sitting guys out, because then you're a week between games."

Carter Verhaeghe, who has been sidelined with an undisclosed injury since April 1, will draw back into the lineup. Initially, the winger wasn't expected back until Game 1 of the playoffs. 

Defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson will not play, however, after leaving Saturday's game with an ailment. 

"He could, but there's no sense in putting him in," Maurice said. 

Josh Mahura will take his spot. 

Defenceman Aaron Ekblad remains out. 

"Ekblad is definitely ready to play for Game 1," Maurice assured. "He'll be back in." 

If the Panthers don't pass the Bruins, then they will face the Leafs again in the playoffs. 

"What happens tonight will have nothing to do with how you come into that first game," Maurice said. "Both teams have a real healthy respect for the other team. They've also had enough success in games, like, there's never been lopsided games ... They got great players. We got great players. If we play each other, it will be a hell of a series."

ContentId(1.2105259): Leafs Ice Chips: Marner back in a rhythm; Cats will claw for division


The Panthers have converted on just 10 per cent of their power-play chances since Verhaeghe got hurt. 

"Carter went down, our power play kind of went down a little bit," Maurice said. "We were trying to attach a word to him. He's not the catalyst to it, he's kind of the fixer to it, because he can get on a puck from a corner. He's such a good skater that his puck retrieval is great." 

Reinhart leads the Panthers with 27 power-play goals while Verhaeghe is second with eight. 

"What happens is you're banging around, and everybody thinks we're trying to get it to Reinhart and then Verhaeghe gets it in an unusual spot and it's bar down and it's in," Maurice said. "It's one or two when you need it for the power play stay hot, so he's kind of been the fixer for our power play."


The Panthers will start back-up goalie Anthony Stolarz. 

"That had always been planned for him to go," Maurice explained. "We haven't really changed our thoughts on a goalie rotation that we laid out two, three weeks in advance all year. I don't think we changed it all year. Sat down and said, 'This will probably play out like this,' and it did. It’s been good for our goalies mentally."

Sergei Bobrovsky started 58 games this season, which is fourth overall. He will now go a week between games. 

"That's not an issue for him," Maurice said. "He's not a young man trying to find his way through the game. He knows that he's not playing for this many days and he has it all scheduled and he's fine."

Stolarz (.926) actually has a better save percentage than Bobrovsky (.915) this season. Now, he can help lead the Panthers to a division crown. 

"He's certainly earned it," said Maurice. "I don't know much about goaltending but what I do see is also maturation in his game, a change in his style of game a bit to be more efficient and patient in the net. His numbers are as good as there are in the league and we have confidence in him completely."

Stolarz has a .940 save percentage at even strength, which is the highest mark among goalies with 25 plus games played. 

Matthews has not scored in four career games against Stolarz. 

ContentId(1.2105206): The Talking Point: How should Leafs approach tonight's game vs. Panthers?


Projected Leafs lineup for Tuesday's game: 

Bertuzzi - Matthews - Marner 
Knies - Tavares - Nylander 
Robertson - Holmberg - Gregor
Dewar - Kampf - Reaves

Rielly - Lyubushkin 
Benoit - McCabe 
Edmundson - Liljegren 

Woll starts 

Projected Panthers lineup for Tuesday's game: 

Tarasenko - Barkov - Reinhart 
Verhaeghe - Bennett - Tkachuk 
Luostarinen - Lundell - Rodrigues 
Gadjovich - Stenlund - Cousins 

Forsling - Montour 
Mikkola - Balinskis 
Mahura - Kulikov 

Stolarz starts