TORONTO — Like a master chef serving up a lengthy tasting menu, the Maple Leafs rolled out some tasty appetizers to start against the Florida Panthers.
Six minutes in, Mitch Marner took a long John Tavares pass off the boards and — with one defenceman blowing a tire and Andreas Johnsson occupying the other — swooped in on net only to be stopped by a fine glove save by Roberto Luongo.
Some five minutes later, Marner pilfered the puck in the corner and fed Tavares, whose no-look pass between his legs found Johnsson just behind him on Luongo’s doorstep. But his shot was saved by the Panthers veteran.
There was more of the same later in the period.
Connor Brown, parked in front of the goal, delivered a between-the-legs pass to William Nylander cruising in from behind the corner. His redirect hit the side of the net, however.
No goals but the table was set for a 6-1 win against a Panther team that stood 26th in the standings Friday morning.
The meaty performance delighted fans but reinforced coach Mike Babcock’s conviction that while a high-powered offence is nice, it needs to come with a dose of defence — especially against the kind of quality opposition the Leafs (23-10-2) will face in the playoffs.
“In the end, you’re going to have to play real good defence to win,” Babcock said after the game. “So you’re going to have to be a heavy team that can play on the cycle and you’re going to have to be a team that can really defend if you want to have success. We’d like to become that team.
“We’ve got lots of young players here that are going to get better and continue to get better. We’ve got (Matthews) who looks like he’s starting to be in shape now and Willie (Nylander), as you can tell, is a ways away. As we get our group going we can become a really good team.”
But on this night, even without forward Zach Hyman (ankle) doing the dirty work, the offence was eye-popping.
The Leafs have now scored three or more goals in 11 of their last 12 games (8-2-2).
“This is one of the best teams in the NHL. They did this to (New) Jersey two nights ago,” said Florida coach Bob Boughner, referencing the Leafs’ 7-2 win Tuesday over the Devils. “We need to play almost near-perfect to beat these guys and we were far from that tonight.”
Three of Toronto’s goals came with the man-advantage against a 13-14-6 Florida team that had killed off 29 of 32 power plays over its previous 12 games. But there were large stretches of the game at five-on-five when it looked like the Leafs had more players on the ice than the Panthers.
Matthews finally broke the deadlock on the power play late in the first period when Morgan Rielly fed Marner, who drew all four penalty-killers to his side of the ice like a magnet. Marner found Matthews all alone with a cross-ice pass for an easy score.
It capped an eight-pass sequence that started with goaltender Freddie Andersen sending the puck up ice. Luongo would have needed rockets on his skates to get across his goal in time to stop Matthews’ shot.
The second period opened with more flash as Kasperi Kapanen nutmegged Jonathan Huberdeau. Then fourth-line centre Freddie Gauthier rang a shot off the goalpost.
Matthews made it 2-0, roofing a rocket after a seeing-eye pass by Rielly following some slick skating by Kapanen in the Panthers zone with Patrick Marleau causing a ruckus in front of goal. The setup was so good that Florida star forward Aleksander Barkov, who is as good defensively as he is with the puck on his stick, couldn’t get to Matthews in time to stop the snap shot.
Its hands full, Florida managed one shot in the first 11 minutes of the second period,
Nazem Kadri made it 3-0 on a tap-in on a 2-on-1 with Brown on a rush set up by a fine Rielly pass.
Two goals by Tavares and a single by Marner in the third completed the Leafs scoring. Henrik Borgstrom added a consolation goal for Florida as the Toronto defence loosened in the drying minutes.
Tavares’ first goal came on the power play as Tyler Ennis undressed Panthers defenceman MacKenzie Weegar with a spin move before being tripped by Alexander Petrovic.
Marner set up Tavares’ second, skating behind the net while using Johnsson as a blocker before sending a pass back to his centre for a 5-0 lead. It was his league-leading 30th primary assists of the season.
After Borgstrom’s goal, Marner got No. 6 for Toronto when his attempted pass deflected in off a Florida defenceman’s skate.
The win avenged a 4-3 overtime loss to the Panthers last Saturday in Sunrise, Fla.
“We came out, we were ready, we skated well, had a few big saves early from Freddie (Andersen) and then we just kind of got rolling,” said Rielly, who finished with four assists Thursday.
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While Babcock tries to keep his high-flying team grounded, Toronto is clearly headed in the right direction.
Going into play Friday, the Leafs were averaging 3.71 goals a game, second only to Tampa’s 4.03. Toronto ranked fourth in goals-against (2.74 per game).
The Leafs look to continue to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Thursday marked the start of an 11-game stretch that sees them play nine at home. And six of Toronto’s next eight games are against teams in the bottom half of the standings.
Toronto’s depth and speed at forward coupled with a mobile defence and Andersen’s usually robotic performance in goal spell trouble for lesser foes.
The true test is yet to come, however.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press