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Red-hot Maple Leafs set to visit Panthers

by Davis Harper

MAPLE LEAFS (30-21-6) at PANTHERS (21-27-7)


Last 10: Toronto 8-1-1; Florida 4-6-0

Season series: This is the third of four games and the first at BB&T Center. Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri had three assists in a 6-3 win against the Florida Panthers last Thursday as part of a current six-game home winning streak at Air Canada Centre.

Big story: With a 10-1-1 record over their past 12 games, the Maple Leafs appear to be hitting their stride as the Olympic break beckons. Toronto will try to keep its torrid pace going against a Panthers team in the midst of a three-game losing skid.

Team Scope:

Maple Leafs: Toronto is the hottest team in the Eastern Conference, and much of it is down to the recent heroics of two-time NHL all-star Phil Kessel. On Monday, Kessel was named the NHL's Second Star for the month of January, during which he scored 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 15 games.

Kessel scored a hat trick in the 6-3 win against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, moving him past the 30-goal mark for the sixth time in his career. Not only is he scoring, but his 31 assists (including five over the past four games) lead the team.

"When you give him chances, he has the ability to find the back of the net," coach Randy Carlyle said. "He's a shooter, that's for sure. There's always been a lot of them around the League and he's been classified as [a one-dimensional] player, but we think he has more of an all-around ability. He can distribute the puck, pass it, find people, do a lot more than just shoot."

Panthers: As Florida's season begins to stagnate -- the Panthers are 14th in the Eastern Conference, 11 points out of postseason position -- talk has turned to the future of starting goalie Tim Thomas. After taking a season off, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner signed a one-year contract in September.

Despite his team's struggles and his own 14-16-3 record this season, Thomas told reporters Monday he would consider extending his run in Florida.

"I'm certainly willing to entertain the idea. I haven't talked to the club about that," Thomas said. "I was hoping by this time to be seeing more team success. That's been a little bit difficult. Having said that, it's a process. I knew coming into it where the team was last year. I bought into this process, and what we're trying to do is turn it around."

Who's hot: While Kessel and top linemates James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak have been piling up the points, second-line center Kadri has been on a tear of his own. Kadri has three goals and four assists over a three-game point streak. … Panthers leading scorer Brad Boyes has three goals over his past four games.

Injury report: For Toronto, forward David Clarkson (elbow) expects to return Tuesday and forward Dave Bolland (ankle) could also return soon. Forwards Carter Ashton (hand) and Peter Holland (ankle) are day-to-day and winger Trevor Smith (hand) is out indefinitely. … For Florida, defenseman Mike Mottau (leg) is day-to-day.

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