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Matthews aims to break through against Panthers in potential playoff preview


The Maple Leafs (optional) and Florida Panthers held morning skates at Scotiabank Arena on Monday. 


The Panthers prevented Auston Matthews from scoring in all five games of their playoff series last spring, but Florida head coach Paul Maurice insists there's no secret to stopping the NHL's goals leader.

"Well, man, what game is it? Seventy-four? He's got 60 of them, so nobody's figured that out," Maurice said. "I'm not the smartest guy in the league. I'm just going to put a bunch of guys out and hope they defend the hell out of it, if they can. You're not stopping him. You just hope he's scoring the next night, not the night you're there in town."

"Almost impossible to keep him quiet," acknowledged Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad. "At the end of the day, he's going to get his points. He's going to get his goals."

Matthews scored his 60th goal of the season on Saturday in Buffalo. He's just the ninth player in NHL history to record multiple 60-goal seasons. 

"It's watching history, obviously," marvelled defenceman Jake McCabe. "And we still got nine games left. So, it's pretty impressive to watch, day in and day out, how he gets it done. Obviously, he's got an elite shot, but I mean, the way he scored his 60th, just got a knack for the net and finding those right spots."

"I've never played with a guy who can score like that," said winger Ryan Reaves, who's in his 14th NHL season. "Really proud of him for pulling it off. See if he can get 70 now."

Is that realistic? 

"Eighty is possible for that guy," Reaves said with a wide smile. "Anything's possible with him with the way he shoots the puck."

Matthews never seems satisfied. He's constantly raising the bar.

"I just don't think he sits on it," said Leafs captain John Tavares. "I don't think he really sets limits on himself. He just wants to continue to get better and work on his game and go out there each and every night and be consistent and impact it. The big picture or hitting certain numbers, it's not something he focuses on, but certainly he wants to continue to be one of the best in the world ... He's just the total package." 

The Panthers kept Matthews off the scoresheet in two regular-season games this year, so they must be doing something right. 

"It's going to take all five guys out there," said winger Matthew Tkachuk. "A guy like that, he's super tough to play against. It's going to take some physicality, being in the right spot, playing smart, that's really what it is."

If anyone can do it, Florida seems the best bet. The Panthers are allowing just 2.43 goals a game, which leads the NHL. 

"You have to be ready to play through pressure," Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. "There is pressure all over the ice — forecheck pressure, gaps, and d-zone pressure is all really tight. You have to be able to contend with that and find your way through it. This has been the best defensive team in the league ... It is a tall order to get access to their net and to get through your own zone and the neutral zone. That is where we will be challenged the most tonight."

The Leafs scored two goals in each of the five playoff games against the Panthers last spring. They have been limited to just one goal in each of the two regular season games so far. 

"We've got a good game plan on how we're trying to beat these guys," Tkachuk said. "They're a very talented team, so a lot of firepower over there, and tough to contain them all. So, hopefully we can do that tonight."

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If the playoffs started today, the Panthers and Leafs are in line to face each other again and that's added a little extra spice to Monday's showdown. 

"I'm expecting a fun one," said Reaves. "It's a pretty direct team that likes to play physical. Obviously, the team that beat this team last year in the playoffs so, yeah, it's going be physical. It's going to be high intensity. It's going to feel like a playoff game. It's a potential playoff matchup so, yeah, it's going to be everything you expect." 

The teams haven't faced off since Nov. 28 when the Leafs won 2-1 after a six-round shootout. Noah Gregor, who will be a healthy scratch on Monday, scored the only Leafs goal in regulation as well as the shootout winner. 

"It's weird not seeing a team in your division for four months, so it's maybe a reintroduction of games," Maurice said. "Both teams have added players, changed the way they look a little bit. Both teams are still driven by the best players on their team. I don't think either team had a monumental shift in who they are. Just get out there and get to know each other again tonight."

The teams will complete their regular season series on April 16 in south Florida. 

"Now's the time you start peeking at the matchups and who you're potentially playing," said Reaves. "When you play a team that you might play in the playoffs twice in the last 10 games, you want to put your best foot forward, but not only that, you want to send a message."

Reaves is one of several new players on the Leafs this season. 

"We have a lot of different people here," stressed Keefe. 

But the matchup has felt eerily familiar in the two games this season. The Panthers beat the Leafs in their home opener way back in October and Florida controlled much of the possession in November even though they were playing on the second half of a back-to-back. 

Toronto is looking to give the defending Eastern Conference champions a taste of their own medicine. 

"Spend more time in their O-zone and put stress on them like they like to put stress on other teams," McCabe said. "We want to do that to them tonight and have a couple shifts rolling around with a couple O-zone changes, put a little pressure on their side of the ice."

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Ilya Samsonov will start again on Monday. He's coming off a 34-save shutout in Buffalo on Saturday. Keefe revealed that goalie coach Curtis Sanford felt it was Samsonov's best technical game of the season. 

"Never mind the big saves, he just thought technically that this was his best game of the season with how he moved in the net and how he was in control and in position to make those big saves because of how he was managing the game and his depth," Keefe said. 

"Won us the game," McCabe said. "Made key save after key save and kept our lead. I can't say enough about him really just bailing us out left and right because, frankly, we didn't love our game."

It's been an incredible transformation for Samsonov this season. He was so leaky early on that the team placed him on waivers and every other team passed on him back on Jan. 1. Since getting called up, Samsonov is 15-4-1 with a .914 save percentage. 

"To go through a stretch like he did, and you could see it on him where he was getting frustrated, and to be able to turn it around [is] unbelievable," said Reaves. "Good on him for grinding through because when you go through a stretch like that it can really ruin a season and I feel like it made him stronger."

After the win on Saturday, Samsonov was reminded about his previous game in Buffalo in December when he allowed five goals on 19 shots and was pulled. 

"F--k that s--t," Samsonov with a smile. "I feel good right now."

"It's good when your goalie has swagger," Reaves said. "You want him to have a little bit of a confidence and you want him to be playing with swagger. A goalie with swagger, a goalie with confidence, is the best kind of goalie. A quiet goalie that's just kind of sitting there doing not is not a good thing for the boys."

Sergei Bobrovsky will start for the Panthers.

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The Panthers are 2-5-1 since March 14. 

"We don't mind where our game's at, but got another level before playoffs," said Tkachuk. "Our effort has never been a problem, but it's the execution and our physicality. It's a tough style to play, but we do a good job of playing it most nights, especially on a night like tonight we're going to need it."

Florida is coming off a shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday afternoon.   

"What's important for us is that we feel that, maybe in the last five games, we're coming back to our game," said Maurice. "You can't play it all year. We were really consistent with it and then we had a couple of weeks where we wobbled a little bit, we were inconsistent, and it's not in wins and losses, it's in style of play. Rush game opened up. That's not how we look. I feel in the last five, even with some injuries and a bit of a tough grind, we were coming back to it, so that’s the key for us tonight here is to look the way we're supposed to look." 

The Leafs trail the Panthers by six points. Toronto has one game in hand.

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Morgan Rielly returned to the ice on Monday, but the defenceman will miss a fourth straight game with an upper-body injury. 

"He is day-to-day," said Keefe. "Today was his first day on the ice, so he will be day-to-day from here. He is close to 100 per cent now."

Toronto's blue line is missing three regulars at the moment with Joel Edmundson (lower body) and Timothy Liljegren (upper body) also sidelined and considered week-to-week. Edmundson skated on his own on Monday morning. 

But even when healthy, Keefe doesn't anticipate having a true shutdown defence pair in the playoffs. 

"I don't think we are going to be in a situation where we have a shutdown pair," Keefe said. "We are going to have six defencemen who are going to be dressed each night and are going to be able to compete and play in different situations against different players. I don't think we are in a shutdown pair type of situation as a group. It is going to be by-committee both with the D on the ice but also the group of five working together."

T.J. Brodie and McCabe handled the tough assignments down the stretch last season, but it didn't go well, and the pair was actually broken up during the series against Florida. 

During Saturday's game in Buffalo, the pair of Brodie with Ilya Lyubushkin and the duo of McCabe with Simon Benoit, split the 5-on-5 minutes against Tage Thompson and the Sabres top line.

"I don't know if we have ever really been there with the shutdown type of pair," Keefe said. "[Jake] Muzzin and [Justin] Holl kind of played a lot in that situation. Brodie has played a lot of tough competition all the way through his time here. But we are a by-committee group. I don't expect it to be any different."


Projected Leafs lineup for Monday's game: 

Bertuzzi - Matthews - Domi 
McMann - Tavares - Nylander 
Knies - Holmberg - Robertson 
Dewar - Kampf - Reaves 

Brodie - Lyubushkin 
Benoit - McCabe  
Giordano - Timmins 

Samsonov starts 

Lines at Panthers skate on Monday: 

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

Forsling - Ekblad 
Mikkola - Montour 
Ekman-Larsson - Kulikov 

Bobrovsky starts