TORONTO – As a chef serving a long tasting menu, the Maple Leafs have launched some tasty appetizers to start off against the Florida Panthers.
Six minutes later, Mitch Marner made a long pass from John Tavares off the boards and – with one defender to blow one tire and Andreas Johnsson to occupy the other – dived into the net only to be stopped by a fine glove saved by Roberto Luongo.
About five minutes later, Marner stole the puck in the corner and gave Tavares, whose seemless pass between his legs, found Johnsson right behind him at the door of Luongo. But his shot was saved by the Panther veteran.
There was more of the same at the end of the period.
Connor Brown, stationed in front of the goal, made a pass between the legs for William Nylander, who crossed the curve. Your redirect hit the network side, though.
No goals, but the table was set for a 6-1 win against a Panther team that finished 26th in the standings on Friday morning.
The fleshy performance charmed fans, but bolstered Mike Babcock's belief that while a powerful offense is good, it needs to come with a dose of defense – especially against the kind of quality adversity that Leafs (23-10-2 ) will face. the playoffs.
"In the end, you will have to play a good defense to win," Babcock said after the game. "So you're going to have to be a heavyweight team that can play in the cycle and you're going to have to be a team that can really defend if you want to succeed." We would like to become this team.
"We have a lot of young players here that will improve and continue to improve. We have (Matthews) it looks like he's starting to get in shape now and Willie (Nylander), as you can see, is far away. As our group progresses, we can become a really good team. "
But tonight, even without striker Zach Hyman (ankle) doing the dirty work, the offense was eye-popping.
The Leafs scored three or more goals in 11 of their last 12 games (8-2-2).
"This is one of the best NHL teams. They did it with the (new) Jersey two nights ago, "said Florida coach Bob Boughner, referring to the Leafs' 7-2 victory over Devils. "We need to play almost perfect to beat those guys and we were far from it tonight."
Three of Toronto's goals came with a team advantage against a Florida 13-14-6 team that killed 29 of 32 power plays in the past 12 games. But there were large stretches of the game at five to five when it seemed the Leafs had more players on the ice than the Panthers.
Matthews finally broke the stalemate in the power play late in the first period when Morgan Rielly fed Marner, who drew all four penalty killers to his ice side like a magnet. Marner found Matthews alone with an ice pass crossed by an easy score.
He covered an eight-pass sequence that began with goalkeeper Freddie Andersen sending the puck up. Luongo would need rockets on his skates to cross the goal in time to stop Matthews from kicking.
The second period started with more flash, with Kasperi Kapanen in place of Jonathan Huberdeau. Then the center of the fourth line Freddie Gauthier kicked the beam.
Matthews made it 2-0, covering a rocket after a pass from Rielly's eyes, following a Kapanen kick in the Panthers, with Patrick Marleau causing a rush in front of the goal. The setup was so good that striker Aleksander Barkov of Florida, who is as good defensively as he was with the puck on his cane, failed to reach Matthews in time to stop the snap shot.
His hands full, Florida got a shot in the first 11 minutes of the second period,
Nazem Kadri made it 3-0 in a 2-on-1 game with Brown in a run created by a beautiful Rielly pass.
Two goals from Tavares and one from Marner on the third completed Leafs' score. Henrik Borgstrom added a consolation goal for Florida, with the Toronto defense loosening in the drying minutes.
Tavares's first goal came in the power game when Tyler Ennis stripped Panthers defender MacKenzie Weegar in a spinning move before being stumbled by Alexander Petrovic.
Marner set up Tavares' second, skating behind the net while using Johnsson as a blocker before sending a pass back to his center for a 5-0 lead. It was his 30th main tour of the season.
After Borgstrom's goal, Marner got the number 6 to Toronto when his attempted pass deflected a skateboard from a defenceman from Florida.
The win avenged a 4-3 overtime loss to the Panthers last Saturday in Sunrise, Fla.
"We left, we were ready, we skated well, we had some great defenses at the start of Freddie (Andersen) and then we started rolling," said Rielly, who finished with four assists on Thursday.
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While Babcock tries to keep his team at high altitude, Toronto is clearly heading in the right direction.
Going into the field on Friday, the Leafs averaged 3.71 goals per game, losing only to Tampa's 4.03. Toronto came in fourth in goals against (2.74 per game).
The Leafs seek to continue to keep the score on the board.
Thursday marked the beginning of a stretch of 11 games that leads them to play nine at home. And six of Toronto's next eight games are against teams in the bottom half of the standings.
The depth and speed of the Toronto attack in conjunction with a mobile defense and Andersen's normally robotic performance in the goal mean problems for smaller enemies.
The real test is yet to come, however.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press