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Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf reacts as members of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate a goal during the third period of their NHL hockey game in Tampa, Florida April 24, 2013. (MIKE CARLSON/REUTERS)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf reacts as members of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate a goal during the third period of their NHL hockey game in Tampa, Florida April 24, 2013. (MIKE CARLSON/REUTERS)

Sliding Leafs need a win over last-place Panthers Add to ...

A hiccup in Tampa – where the Lightning have high powered stars and the ability to beat a team any given night when they play well – can be forgiven.

Another loss, in what would be their fifth poor outing in the last six games, against the last-place Florida Panthers?

Probably not so much.

The Toronto Maple Leafs may not have to win any games this week to make the playoffs, but it’s clear the organization doesn’t want to back into its first appearance in the big dance in nine years and dropping Thursday’s game to the Panthers would certainly qualify as that.

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Anything less than two points would also make passing the Montreal Canadiens or Boston Bruins impossible, meaning the best the Leafs could finish is fifth.

There’s also the very real concern of the New York Islanders coming up behind them, as they sit just one point back and play the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres the next two nights.

One indication that Toronto is taking this game seriously? No. 1 netminder James Reimer is expected to start on back-to-back nights, something that is a rarity in general and unheard of if the games are actually meaningless.

This one isn’t.

So, with just four days left in the NHL’s regular season, there are still a lot of moving parts in the standings. Toronto can still finish anywhere from second to eighth in the conference, although the likeliest outcomes are fourth through sixth.

And beating the Panthers – who have just eight wins in 23 home games at the rink known as the BB&T Center (this week anyway) – is a must if the Leafs want Saturday’s home game against Montreal to mean much of anything.

Notebook

- Leafs coach Randy Carlyle had a shot at the media about his team’s horrible shot differential on Thursday morning, joking that “we outshoot a team last night and lose so... what are you guys going to write now?” (We’ll leave that one without comment for now…)

- Carlyle also revealed after Wednesday’s loss to the Lightning that both Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren were nursing injuries, which explains the fighters’ absence in the lineup. Consider them questionable against the Panthers.

- Thursday’s morning skate was an optional so it’s difficult to read too much into the Leafs lineup, but it is expected that John-Michael Liles will draw back in on the blueline in place of Ryan O’Byrne. It’ll be interesting to see if Mike Kostka is played into the ground (ice?) again as Carlyle ponders what to do with him come the postseason.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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