Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov reaches back to make a save against the Florida Panthers in Toronto on April 1.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

There was an unmistakable playoff buzz inside Scotiabank Arena on Monday.

Boos rained down on the Florida Panthers when they skated out for warmups.

The crowd roared when Ryan Reaves laid a thunderous hit on Florida’s Niko Mikkola in the early going, and when Matthew Knies squared off with Mikkola after the defenceman had delivered a hard hit on Pontus Holmberg along the boards.

The building went berserk when Nick Robertson of the Maple Leafs deked Sergei Bobrovsky to score on a breakaway and put Toronto ahead with six minutes left in the first period. And then again when Auston Matthews scored his club-record 61st goal of the season 33 seconds later. (He also got No. 62 on an empty-netter.)

If this was a high-stakes litmus test for the postseason the home team did okay en route to a 6-4 victory. There were still anxious moments – they turned a 5-1 lead in the second period to a 5-4 lead in the third before Matthews put the game away.

Toronto crept within four points of the second-place Panthers who are in a battle for supremacy in the NHL’s Atlantic Division with the Boston Bruins.

In the regular season this is about as good as it gets. The teams are rivals and possible first-round playoff opponents and they will duke it out once more in Sunrise, Fla., on April 16.

Florida clinched a postseason berth last week, Toronto was trying to do it on Monday with a win and a little help from other teams.

It will get another chance on Wednesday when the Tampa Bay Lightning pay a visit.

After winning a playoff series for the first time in two decades last spring, the Maple Leafs were knocked out of the second round by Florida. Don’t think they haven’t forgotten.

“I think any time you have a history with a team, especially a divisional one, it is always going to mean a little bit more,” Jake McCabe, the Toronto defenceman, said early in the day. “This one is no different.”

A year ago, Florida was the last team to qualify for a wildcard and then went on a sensational run before losing to Vegas in the Stanley Cup final. The Maple Leafs and the Bruins, who had the single-greatest regular season in the league’s history, were among the victims along the way.

Despite a recent stretch where they went 2-5-1, the Panthers have been among the league’s strongest teams all season.

“The run they went on last year is a sign of how a team can decide what their identity is going to be,” Sheldon Keefe, Toronto’s head coach, said. “They went from being a team that was trying to find itself to one that drove their way through to the final. Then they picked up right where they left off this season.”

With seven games remaining on their schedule, the Panthers (47-22-5, 99 points) would play the Maple Leafs (43-22-9, 95 points) in Round 1 if the season ended today.

“This is the time you start peeking at the matchups and who you are potentially going to play,” Reaves, the Toronto winger, said beforehand. “When you meet one of those teams you want to put your best foot forward but you also want to send a message.”

Message sent. Sort of.

The 61st goal by Matthews set a record for American-born players. He bettered his club record of 60 set during the 2021-2022 campaign.

“We are watching history and we still have eight more games left,” McCabe said.

Toronto padded the lead in the second period with goals from Tyler Bertuzzi (his 19th), David Kampf (seventh) and Knies (13th).

Ilya Samsonov, who pitched a shutout in a triumph over Buffalo on Saturday, had 27 saves as he improved to 21-6-7 and earned the 100th victory of his career. Bobrovsky, always among the top netminders in the NHL, had a forgettable evening. He stopped 13 of 18 shots and was yanked after 40 minutes.

The Panthers lead the league in fewest goals allowed and are also better on the power play and penalty kill, take more shots per game and allow fewer shots than Toronto.

None of that mattered much on Monday. The Maple Leafs played with a chip on their shoulder against one of the chippiest teams in the league.

“We were engaged in the game,” Keefe said. “I liked the way we stood in there.”

This was a hard-earned win over a tough opponent. It should have been easier but it wasn’t.

Florida got a goal in the second by Brandon Montour and three in the third from Vladimir Tarasenko and Sam Reinhart – the latter’s 52nd – and a final one with their goalie pulled by Sam Bennett.

Fans let loose with “Sammy” cheers when Samsonov made tough saves. The Panthers kept chipping away.

“It got a little nervous at the end,” Samsonov said. “The most important thing is that we got the two points.”

Reaves had a minor dustup with Matthew Tkachuk and mocked the Florida star.

It couldn’t get much better than this.

“They won the game and deserved to win the game,” Paul Maurice, the Florida coach, said. “They won, we lost. That’s just the facts.”

With files from Ilyas Hussein

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe