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Jose Theodore #60 of the Florida Panthers celebrates their win over the Buffalo Sabres during their NHL game at First Niagara Center October 29, 2011 in Buffalo, New York. The Panthers won 3-2. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

They're both Eastern Conference teams with massive playoff droughts, and they'll meet Tuesday in Toronto with both sitting in playoff positions after the first month of the season.

While the Toronto Maple Leafs constitute one of the league's biggest surprises at 9-4-1 to start the year, the Florida Panthers aren't really that far behind at 6-4-3, which is a 95-point pace over a full season.

Little was expected out of Florida after a dramatic overhaul in the off-season, one that saw GM Dale Tallon add all kinds of bodies at bizarre prices in free agency, but out of that has emerged a capable first line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and ex-Leaf Kris Versteeg.

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All three have close to a point a game and are playing 20 minutes a night.

The Panthers aren't world beaters by any stretch, but they're a relatively young, rebuilding team with speed and are playing a more offensive game than they did a year ago under former coach Peter DeBoer.

"All three have a lot of skill and they've chemistry," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said of that top line. "Sometimes you find that by accident. You play together and have a little bit of success, your confidence grows and that's what they look like right now. Like a very confident line. We've got to be aware of them. We've got to put our best defensive pair against them and neutralize them.

"Steeger's a great individual, 1-on-1 player. He got moved around a lot last year and now I think he's found a home and he's comfortable with the two guys he's playing with."

What the Panthers aren't getting is very many goals from their forwards beyond that one line, so those three will see a lot of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson in the shutdown assignment Wilson mentions above.

Florida's power play, however, is one of the best in the league at 23.5 per cent.

Their 11-year playoff drought, meanwhile, is something their newcomers are anxious to forget about.

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"We've got new blood here," Fleischmann said. "Everybody wants to play well and show off. Everybody wants to win. We want to just make sure we win, like we're used to doing [with other teams]"


- With Tim Connolly out for a couple weeks, the Leafs recalled winger Matt Frattin after giving him three games in the minors. He scored a pair of goals in his last game in the AHL and had generated plenty of chances with the Leafs, which is why Wilson wanted to give him another shot.

- A Florida reporter asked Wilson about the fact the Leafs lead the league in blocked shots, drawing a quick response from the coach: "We lead the league in blocked shots? You wouldn't know when you watch our penalty kill. That's a stat like a lot of them are that are different building to building. I at the moment don't think we're a very good shot blocking team but statistically we are. We've got to do a better job there."

- Cody Franson is out again on the Leafs blueline, with Luke Schenn drawing back in after sitting out Saturday's 7-0 loss to the Boston Bruins. Philippe Dupuis is back as well. Jonas Gustavsson starts in goal.

- Panthers coach Kevin Dineen talked about that big loss the Leafs had and how it relates to this game: "You're never crazy about playing a team after they've had a blowout at home. We'll certainly have our hands full tonight."

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- The Panthers are sitting rookie defenceman Erik Gudbranson, who is minus-6 in 11 games despite picking up very little ice time. Goalie Scott Clemmensen is back in their lineup and will backup Jose Theodore.

Leafs projected lineup

MacArthur - Grabovski - Kulemin Lupul - Bozak - Kessel Frattin - Lombardi - Crabb Steckel - Dupuis - Brown

Gunnarsson - Phaneuf Liles - Komisarek Gardiner - Schenn


Panthers projected lineup

Fleischmann - Weiss - Versteeg Upshall - Santorelli - Kopecky Sturm - Goc - Skille Bergenheim - Matthias - Bradley

Campbell - Garrison Ellerby - Jovanovski Kulikov - Weaver


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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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