For the second game in a row, the fans at the Air Canada Centre got to see two emerging NHL stars take turns controlling the game.
This time, instead of the Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews and the Buffalo Sabres' Jack Eichel, it was Mitch Marner of the Leafs and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers. The Leafs also dominated play in the early going and then hung on for the win, unlike Monday's loss to the Sabres.
Powered by Marner's goal and assist, the Leafs took a 4-3 win from the Panthers and Huberdeau, who scored two goals. Matthews, Patrick Marleau and James van Riemsdyk, who put in his own rebound at 11:48 of the third period to give the Leafs some breathing room, also scored for the Leafs. Evgenii Dadonov scored at 18:34 of the third period with goaltender Roberto Luongo pulled for an extra skater.
The win was the 46th of the regular season for the Leafs, a franchise record. Their 27th win at home was also a new franchise record.
"Those things are all nice to get," said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, who was happier his team managed to find a way to win after the Panthers, who are fighting for an Eastern Conference wild-card playoff spot, mounted a push in the last two periods. "We've got a plan, just moving along, trying to get better."
The Leafs, and Marner in particular, dominated the first period but allowed the Panthers to do the same in the second so all the Leafs took into the third was a 3-2 lead. But what a first period it was.
Marner was simply a wizard for the opening 20 minutes, whirling around the Panthers zone at will. So, for that matter, did the rest of the Leafs as the Panthers were content to stand around and watch them.
"He's always involved in the play, he's a special player," Matthews said of Marner. "He sees the ice well and makes guys around him better. He really complements the two guys he plays with [Nazem Kadri and Marleau] well."
The only visitor working like mad was Luongo. He made several big saves, two of them on Leafs centre Tyler Bozak, who must have gone to the dressing room at the horn talking to himself. If not for Luongo, the Leafs would have scored a lot more than the three goals they managed in the first 20 minutes.
Of course, the Leafs were well aware of what they were up against in Luongo, who will turn 39 on April 4. He beat them 3-2 the last time the Panthers were here, on Feb. 27.
"He's been doing it a long time," van Riemsdyk said of the veteran goaltender. "The way he reads the game, his hockey sense is really good. That's what allows you to play when you get older, having those smarts when your body doesn't do the things it used to do back when you were younger."
Well, Luongo said, yes.
"Even though I may have slowed down over the last few years, all in all, technically I'm probably the best I've ever been," he said after the morning skate.
Luongo was left to face the Leafs on his own at the start of the game and in the second minute he stopped van Riemsdyk on a partial breakaway and then managed to dive backwards to get a glove on a shot by Bozak, who had an open net looking at him.
But Marner and the Leafs kept coming and it did not take long for the second-year pro to strike. Marner fired a long shot off the end boards, chased his own rebound and fired that behind Luongo at 3:05 for the first Leafs goal. It was Marner's 21st goal of the season and moved his points streak to 10 games, the longest of his career.
"Pretty lucky bounce off the end wall," Marner said. "I just kind of saw it there and thought I should take [a slapshot]. It's been fun. This team has grown in confidence and that's important going forward here."
The Panthers were guilty of standing around again midway through the period, which allowed Matthews to rush up the middle of the ice and bury a shot on Luongo. It was Matthews' 30th goal of the season, giving the Leafs three 30-goal scorers – Matthews, Nazem Kadri (30) and van Riemsdyk (35) – and it was the first time he scored on Luongo this season in three games.
"He's had my number all year so it's nice to get one," Matthews said. "I wanted to shoot it high and at the last moment he was standing up. At the last second I let up a little bit and put it at the five-hole, because I thought he was guessing."
Marner created another goal at 13:55 to give the Leafs a 3-0 lead. He circled the Florida zone until he saw Marleau open at the goal post and fed him the puck for the veteran's 25th goal of the season.
In the second period Huberdeau and the Panthers finally showed up, even if it looked for a while as if he would be as frustrated as Bozak. Early in the period, on a Panthers power play, Huberdeau had an open net only to see Andersen dive backwards and get his glove on a shot that appeared to be a sure goal.
But Huberdeau, who was as dominant for the Panthers as Marner was for the Leafs, was rewarded at 15:08 with his second goal. He ripped a shot from the right faceoff circle past Andersen for his 25th goal of the season.
One Leaf who did not please his coach was winger William Nylander, whose giveaway set up Huberdeau's second goal. He was displaced on Matthews' line by rookie Andreas Johnsson and Connor Brown for much of the rest of the game.