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Hockey Maple Leafs suddenly face ‘statement game’ against woeful Florida Panthers

If the Toronto Maple Leafs really want to make their moms proud, they need to finish their southern road trip with a win over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night.

Actually, this goes a lot further than just showing their mothers a good time in their first official trip with their boys after half a dozen or so dads’ trips over the years. If the Leafs really are to believe they showed something against the best team in the NHL, despite a 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, then they need to beat the Panthers, a much lesser team, to prove it.

“I think you come in here and you never know if you're in a spot to play with the good teams until you play them. I thought we had a good account of ourselves,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, not one to please easily, said after the loss to the Lightning. “Obviously, the score is disappointing, but the way we played is not one bit disappointing.”

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It was one of those “yes, but” nights. Yes, the Leafs lost by three, but they outshot the Lightning 49-21 in Tampa’s own building and were frustrated by an outstanding performance from Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Yes, the Bolts took advantage of a few defensive mistakes, but the Leafs controlled the puck for most of the night.

“We spent a ton of time in the offensive zone, we rolled around good in their zone, we weren’t hemmed in our zone very often at all. We executed good,” Babcock said. “We turned the puck over on that fourth one and we didn’t … we could have beat their guy to the net on the third one. Those are the only things for me that stand out.”

Of course, this works the other way, which is why the Leafs have to beat the Panthers in order to come home from the trip with two wins out of three games. Teams with two or three points to show from three-game road trips are not ready to play with the big boys.

Yes, the Maple Leafs’ power play dominated the Lightning penalty killers, blasting away at Vasilevskiy, but it finished 0-for-6 and allowed a short-handed goal. On the penalty-killing side of things, the Leafs were even worse. The Bolts had three power plays and scored once, showing why their power play is third-best in the NHL, while the Leafs’ unit dropped to eighth after the game. The Leaf penalty killers slipped to 15th in the league following the loss.

The Leafs, though, preferred to depart for the Panthers game feeling good about themselves.

“I think in the end [Vasilevskiy] won them the game,” Matthews said. “I thought we played well, we had tons of chances. When you play a good team like Tampa, you know they're going to get chances. They capitalized on a couple of theirs and obviously their goalie stood big on his.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to tip your cap and move forward.”

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Well, okay, as long as you beat the teams you are supposed to beat. The Leafs started the trip by spanking the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1. The Panthers (11-13-6) are even worse than the Hurricanes.

The Panthers have a four-game losing streak. They lost 5-1 on the road to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, one day after head coach Bob Boughner called a team meeting to try to rally his players. By the end of the Wild game, Boughner called out his players and general manager Dale Tallon was talking about calling up some prospects from the minors to challenge for jobs.

“It’s a disappointing loss, especially in the last 10-15 minutes. Even when you’re down, the message is to play to the buzzer, play with pride, and I thought some guys didn’t,” Boughner told The Athletic. “It seems like every night it’s a one-goal game, and we can’t find that second to put us up. Then there is a momentum change. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We have to figure this out. The only solution is winning a game.”

The Panthers’ troubles are tailor-made for the Leafs. Their goaltending is in-and-out with Roberto Luongo battling injuries and James Reimer still having trouble with consistency. And their defensive game as a whole is prone to collapse.

So if the Leafs really want to show their moms they can score as well as shoot they are not going to get a better chance to do so than Saturday night.

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