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After a puzzling and inconsistent effort against the New York Islanders earlier in the week, the Toronto Maple Leafs put together a solid performance with some promising signs in a 6-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday.
Auston Matthews scored twice, William Nylander, Michael Bunting, Alex Kerfoot, and Mitch Marner scored for Toronto, Marner, and John Tavares had three points, and Matt Murray made 33 saves in his second straight excellent outing.
“I thought (Murray) looked great.” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game. “Our guys did a really good job in front of him. I think that is important. (Florida) is a very, very dynamic offensive team that we played against (and) we really limited their opportunities. Any time they did break free or look dangerous, he made it look easy. I really like that.”
Matthews has regained his scoring touch after admittedly battling some injury issues, with six goals in his last eight games, and is now on pace to reach the 40-goal mark. The contest also marked the end of some goalless skids some Leafs players. Nylander’s second-period tally snapped a four-game drought, Bunting’s power play marker ended a six-game skid, but the most notable was Kerfoot’s third-period marker, who had not scored since the last time Toronto played the Panthers in mid-January.
It was Morgan Rielly’s turn to get a night off in the Leafs defensive rotation, as Keefe opted for an 11-forward, seven-defensemen alignment against Florida.
“With this little phase of the schedule for sure, it is something we have talked about. When Kyle and I met with all of the defensemen a week or two ago and told them this was going to be coming, we have gone down the list of guys pretty much here.” Keefe said. “Rielly just played five games in nine nights. This is a good break for him. We have a back-to-back coming up here, so I think you will see more of that trend continue.”
It was a good night all around for Toronto, as Tampa Bay’s 7-2 loss to Ottawa moved the Leafs five points in front of the Lightning with two games in hand. Not an insurmountable lead, but definitely an advantage that will be difficult for Tampa to overcome in the race for second place in the Atlantic.
Toronto will take on the Carolina Hurricanes in the first of back-to-back weekend games in Raleigh on Saturday.