Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers Thursday at Air Canada Centre:
Perfect streak on the penalty kill comes to a halt.
Toronto entered the game having not surrendered a power play goal to the opposition in the previous six games, but after a scoreless opening period, the Leafs allowed one to Florida winger Jussi Jokinen just 24 seconds into the middle frame to give the visiting Panthers the first lead of the night.
Florida pressured the Buds into four man advantages Thursday, in a near-repeat of the last time the two teams met – a Jan. 26, 5-1 Panthers win in which they scored two power play goals on five opportunities. At this stage in the team’s development, Toronto simply doesn’t have the depth to keep up with the Panthers’ gang of top offensive talent; giving them too many chances to display that talent on the PP is a near-guarantee of defeat.
Rielly’s confidence and contribution continue moving in the right direction.
Leafs blueliner Morgan Rielly cut into Florida’s lead – which had grown to two goals when Jokinen scored a fluky marker at 9:22 of the second – with a terrific wrist shot that beat star goalie Roberto Luongo some seven minutes later and was the latest indication the 22-year-old is thriving in an increased role.
It’s been more than five weeks since the Leafs dealt veteran defenceman Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa, and head coach Mike Babcock’s confidence in Rielly is clear. So is the youngster’s skill and will when it comes to jumping into the play with the puck. The goal (his eighth of the season, tying a career-high) gave him 30 points, a new career-best. And for the 12th game in his past 14 games, he has logged at least 24 minutes of ice time, including 28:24 Thursday. Rielly’s tremendous finish to the regular season is one of the best developments Leafs fans can point to in a year of many positive developments.
Another game, another NHL debut for a young Leaf.
There’s been no shortage of roster movement in recent weeks for the Leafs, and a slew of the organization’s prospects have received an opportunity at the NHL level after impressing with the American League Marlies. Forward Connor Brown certainly matches that description, and as such, he got to play in his first-ever NHL game against the Panthers, amassing 15:40 of ice time.
After returning in January from a serious ankle injury that cost him 34 AHL games, Brown continued making an impact on the scoresheet as he did in his rookie professional season, registering nine goals and 24 points in 28 games after posting 21 goals and 61 points in 2014-15. The 22-year-old didn’t look overwhelmed against a playoff-bound team in the Panthers, received 2:27 of power play time from Babcock, and used his speed to his advantage. Don’t be surprised if he gets a few more games to acclimate himself before rejoining the Marlies for the post-season.
Timeless wonder Jagr adds to his goal collection.
Hockey icon Jaromir Jagr returned to the ACC, and the 44-year-old winger put the game away for the Panthers at 17:54 of the third period with the first of two empty-net goals for Florida. The Czech legend’s goal was his 24th of the season, and the 746th regular-season NHL goal of his staggeringly impressive career.
It’s great to see hockey fans recognizing a living legend still playing phenomenal hockey at an advanced age, and Jagr clearly is returning the affection, both with his happy disposition and with the dedication to conditioning that allows him to play the way he’s playing. Florida returns to the ACC for the final time this season April 5, and he’ll be as much of a must-see at that point as he was Thursday.
Marincin a staple on the PK.
Defenceman Martin Marincin finished second on the team to Rielly in minutes by putting up 24:25 Thursday, but he led all Leafs players in penalty kill minutes with a whopping 6:12. To put it another way, Marincin nearly had as much PK time as all five other Toronto blueliners combined (6:46).
The 24-year-old’s strengths are being emphasized by Babcock and his staff, and Marincin’s confidence as a defender appears at a season-high peak. As a result, there’s no reason to think he’ll have his minutes scaled back the rest of the way.