Leafs, Panthers tangle in South Florida

(SportsNetwork.com) – A pair of Atlantic Division combatants return from the
NHL’s Christmas break, as the Florida Panthers welcome the Toronto Maple Leafs
for Sunday’s clash at BB&T Center.

The Panthers haven’t played since Monday when they salvaged the finale of a
home-and-home series with Pittsburgh. Florida began a four-game homestand with
the shootout triumph over the Penguins and improved to 8-4-2 as the home club
this season.

Toronto also was able to head into the brief break on a positive note, as it
posted a 4-0 victory Tuesday night in Dallas. The shutout win halted an 0-3
slide for Randy Carlyle’s club and was the Maple Leafs’ seventh victory in 10
outings.

This evening’s test marks the first of four scheduled encounters between the
Leafs and Panthers in 2014-15. Florida, which is five points in back of
fourth-place Toronto in the division standings, won three of four meetings
with Toronto last season and has claimed eight of the past 12 encounters in
this series.

The Panthers also have won two straight, seven of nine and nine of the past 12
meetings in the Sunshine State.

Florida won its third consecutive home game with Monday’s 4-3 decision over
the Penguins, who had posted a 3-1 victory over the Panthers in the Steel City
on Dec. 20.

Aleksander Barkov provided the lone goal of a seven-round shootout as the Cats
claimed the extra point in the finale. After Simon Despres had his chance
deflected away by Roberto Luongo to open the final round, Barkov faked a move
from forehand-to-backhand up the middle and casually flipped a shot past Marc-
Andre Fleury which ended the game.

Florida has been no stranger to lengthy shootout battles recently, as the club
has endured four shootouts lasting a total of 35 rounds in its last six
contests.

Jimmy Hayes scored twice in regulation and Jussi Jokinen once for the
Panthers, while Luongo came up with 24 saves.

“We’ve been beating some good teams here,” Hayes said. “We have to continue to
put pucks in the net.”

Florida will continue its homestand Tuesday against Montreal before completing
the stay in Sunrise the following night against the New York Rangers.

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, are making the third stop on a seven-game road
trip tonight. Toronto began the epic trek with last Sunday’s 4-0 setback in
Chicago, but the Leafs rebounded two days later when they downed the Stars by
the same score.

James van Riemsdyk led Toronto’s offense with a goal and two assists, but
Jonathan Bernier played an even bigger role in the victory, stopping all 43
shots to post his second shutout of the season.

Bernier’s 43 saves included 19 in the third period. He picked up his ninth
career shutout.

The win allowed Toronto to avoid its first four-game losing streak of the
season.

“You don’t want losing streaks to linger and that one was lingering long
enough for us,” said Carlyle. “Hopefully we’ll use this as a little bit of a
breather. It was the best Christmas present we could have given ourselves.”

Nazem Kadri added a goal and an assist for the Leafs, who also received goal
from Tyler Bozak and Mike Santorelli. Phil Kessel contributed two helpers to
the winning effort.

Toronto, which is three points behind Montreal for the third and final
automatic playoff bid in the Atlantic, improved its road record this season to
6-4-3.

The Leafs will continue the swing with Monday’s tilt in Tampa and that means
both Bernier and backup James Reimer could draw starts over the next two
games. Bernier is 1-1-0 with a 2.58 goals against average in his career
against Florida, while Reimer has a lifetime 1-3-0 record and a 3.47 GAA in
this matchup.

Luongo boasts a 15-7-0 record and a 2.29 GAA against Toronto and is expected
to start tonight.