Florida Panthers Are Division Champions With Win Over Toronto

Panthers Division Champions Toronto

Sunrise, FL – The Florida Panthers are Atlantic Division champions after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday.

As the division winner with the second-most points in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers will face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who clinched the top wild card spot with 96 points. Although, they have one game left on Wednesday, also against the Leafs.

The Panthers came into Tuesday needing some help from the Ottawa Senators in beating the Boston Bruins. Boston had been jockeying with Florida all year for the top Atlantic spot – and even Presidents’ Trophy at times. The Bruins lost to Ottawa, 3-1, on Tuesday, paving the way for Florida’s clinch.

The Leafs took a 2-0 lead in the first period with goals from Mitch Marner and Noah Gregor.

Carter Verhaeghe got in the lineup for the first time since leaving with an undisclosed injury in Florida’s loss to Toronto on April 1st. He got the Panthers on the board by banging in his own rebound right in front of the crease.

The Panthers then notched three goals against Leafs goalie Joseph Woll in the span of three minutes. Gustav Forsling ripped a slap shot from the halfboards that ricocheted off Sam Bennett for the first goal. Ten seconds later, Sam Reinhart scored his 56th goal of the season with a wrist shot just outside the crease. Brandon Montour capped off the scoring flurry with a slap shot from the blue line.

By the end of the second period, the Panthers were up 4-2, and fired 29 shots on goal in the second period alone, which is the highest for any team in one period this season.

“I liked tonight’s game, especially, because the first period  … it was just okay,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said. “It was pretty good, but we’re down a couple (of goals). Second period was kind of the first time in a while that we looked the way we’re supposed to look. And you can feel it. It’s more than just the way we looked. You feel it on the bench, the energy level on the bench.”

Reinhart notched the empty-netter with a little over one minute left in the game for his 57th goal of the year.

How did we get here?

For a short time, it looked like the Panthers lost their grip on the division. On March 13th, the Cats held a three-point lead over Boston before going on a 2-7-1 skid. That bled into April as a result of injuries, bad luck, and blown leads. 

One of those losses was to the Boston Bruins: a 3-2 overtime loss on April 6th to end a four-game road trip. The trip included losses in back-to-back games to the Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens.

As late as April 8th, the Panthers found themselves in a five-point hole to the Bruins, who were in the middle of a four-game winning streak themselves. That’s when the Panthers came back to south Florida and rattled off four-straight wins. It included shutout wins against the Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets. Also, an overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres, and, ultimately, a victory over the Leafs to clinch their spot atop the Atlantic.

“Yeah, it’s huge,” Bennett said. “I mean it’s how you want to gear up for the playoffs. We kind of had a little bit of a setback there for a little bit. But we finished strong, we finished the right way. We played hard and prepared ourselves the right way for the playoffs. So we’re going in, in a good spot.”

What’s next?

Waiting for Florida in round one will be the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Panthers get the benefit of home ice in the first round, but it’s hard to ignore how much of a thorn the Lightning have been in Florida’s side. In 2020-21 and 2021-22, it was the Lightning that sent the Panthers packing in the postseason. The most recent iteration of the cross-state rivalry was a Lightning sweep in the Conference Semifinals. They eliminated the Panthers after their President’s Trophy-winning regular season.

The first round schedule hasn’t been set yet, but the first games will take place on Saturday.

“Both teams know how to play hard,” said Maurice, who will be experiencing his first Panthers-Lightning playoff series as Florida’s head coach. “Both teams have some high-end skill on it. But it’ll be a great battle. It’ll be great for the fans, right? The energy, I haven’t experienced that yet. So I’m new to this. I’m looking forward to it.”

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