The Florida Panthers officially sealed the best regular season in franchise history on Monday night.
Florida scored a 4-3 win over Toronto at the Air Canada Centre, giving them a franchise-record 99 points this season. The Panthers, who clinched their fifth playoff berth in team history on Sunday, surpassed the 98-point club record held by the 1999-2000 edition of the club.
Rocco Grimaldi scored a pair in the win, joined by Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov on the scoresheet for Florida. Al Montoya stopped 22 shots in a rare start, topping Jonathan Bernier, who made 32 saves.
Colin Greening, with two, and T.J. Brennan scored for the Leafs, who are still tied for last in the NHL with 67 points.
The Atlantic-Division leaders, Florida doesn't believe it's a surprise team any longer.
"I like our team and I think coaches comment around the league that we're a good hockey team," Panthers coach Gerrard Gallant said Monday morning. "We all believe that. The players believe that. You don't sneak up on people anymore. They know we're a good hockey team."
Playing for the second time in less than a week, Florida and Toronto muddled through a dull opening frame.
Twenty-year-old centre Frederik Gauthier had perhaps the best early chance, finding some room in the slot area before missing high and wide with what would have been his first NHL goal and point.
Playing alongside veterans Brooks Laich and Michael Grabner, Gauthier drew top matchup duties for the game against Florida with Leafs top centre Nazem Kadri serving the first game of a season-ending four-game suspension. Gauthier and his senior linemates were tested against Florida's powerful top line of Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Huberdeau and 20-year-old centre Aleksander Barkov.
The unit wore Toronto out at points early, grinding and cycling pucks in the Leafs zone. One such instance actually sprung a quality chance for the home side as Grabner and Laich raced in on an odd-man rush which saw Grabner's shot stopped comfortably by Montoya.
Breaking in for a short-handed breakaway later in the period, Grabner had that chance also turned aside by Florida's backup goaltender.
Among the bigger teams in the league, the Panthers caused problems that way for the Leafs, who were dressing a number of players in their earliest NHL days, including Gauthier as well as 19-year-olds William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen.
Making good use of that size, Florida took complete control of the game in the middle period.
Bjugstad, the Panthers six-foot-six centre, opened the scoring less than two minutes into the frame. He grabbed hold of a rebound on an Aaron Ekblad point shot, his first attempt stopped by Bernier, the follow-up deposited for his 14th goal this season.
The 23-year-old Bjugstad is plugging a hole left by injured centre Vincent Trocheck, who emerged with 25 goals this season before suffering a regular season-ending lower-body injury versus Toronto last Tuesday.
Florida's hold on the game and period continued as the Leafs took penalties and failed to generate any offence, stuck mostly in their own end.
Grimaldi scored his first of the game on a blazing rush down the left side, the California native firing a high shot far side that whistled past the reaching glove of Bernier. He added his second of the game shortly after, one-timing a Reilly Smith pass through the pads of the Leafs goaltender.
The puck was turned over moments earlier by Kapanen. Shots in the period favoured Florida 14-1 at that point in the period.
Toronto clawed back in the third frame.
The Leafs appeared to get on the board early in the period only to have the goal from Byron Froese called back on a coach's challenge. Brad Boyes was deemed to have interfered with Montoya, his left leg and arm appearing to make contact with the goaltender.
Greening beat Montoya short side a few minutes later to give Toronto its first goal of the night, cutting the deficit to two on the Leafs first power-play of the night. Nylander set up the play, landing his 10th point in the 19th game of his NHL career.
The Leafs pulled within one three minutes later on the first NHL goal for Brennan since Apr. 2013 when he was a member of the Panthers. Brennan's blast beat Montoya as a crowd of players fell into the goal, almost like pins collapsing in a bowling alley.
The officiating crew for the evening huddled at centre ice after the goal before Florida challenged the play for goaltender interference. The Panthers were unsuccessful on their second attempt, the goal affirmed on video review.
Barkov increased the lead back to two 36 seconds later with his 27th goal of the season before Greening added his second of the game and sixth as a Leaf less than three minutes after that.
Florida held on for its 45th victory this season, increasing the franchise record for wins.
Kadri was also docked US$200,000 for his four-game suspension, which came after he cross-checked Red Wings centre Luke Glendening on Saturday evening. He was replaced in the Leafs lineup by veteran Rich Clune, who was recently serving as captain of the team's AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.