SUNRISE, Fla. - In a game with huge playoff implications, the Florida Panthers saw a 3-1 lead slip through their fingers in a 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at BB&T Center on Thursday.
With the loss, the Panthers (33-25-6) now trail the Maple Leafs (34-23-8) by four points for third place in the Atlantic Division with 18 games left in their season. That being said, Florida also still has one key game in hand on Toronto, and the two clubs will meet one more time on March 23.
And if you ask Joel Quenneville, he'll tell you the playoff race is only starting to heat up. "Lots of hockey [left to play]," the Panthers head coach said confidently.
"It was a tricky game coming back [from the road]. We knew on the schedule it was one of those situations where first game back you've got to find a way and hope to get something out of it. "It looked like we had a good chance to do that. That's the tough part about it, but, hey, we've got to find a way to [take it] one game at a time here at home. We've got to get back into the winning ways here. Disappointing stretch at home here."
In a tilt between two of the league's top offenses, the red light shined bright in the first period.
After Mark Pysyk opened the scoring to put the Panthers up 1-0 at 2:23, Zach Hyman answered back with a goal for the Maple Leafs to make it 1-1 at 3:32. Soon after, Florida managed to jump out to a 3-1 lead with goals from Mike Hoffman and Noel Acciari at 7:25 and 12:36, respectively.
But in the waning minutes of the opening frame, Toronto turned the game on its head. Following a goal from Kasperi Kapanen that cut the Panthers' lead down to 3-2 at 17:43, Auston Matthews jumped on a loose puck and fired a shot past Sergei Bobrovsky to make it a 3-3 game at 18:58.
In net, Bobrovsky and Maple Leafs goaltender Frederick Andersen each finished with 24 saves.
Heading into the third period after a scoreless second, William Nylander netted what held up as the game-winning goal when he jumped on a loose puck, spun around and sent a wrist shot into Florida's cage to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 lead with 11 minutes left on the clock in regulation. At 19:39, Justin Holl put the game away with a long empty-net goal that made it 5-3.
"Obviously there was a lot going on in that first period," Quenneville said. "Pucks were going in and there was a lot of action around both nets. The second period, I think [Toronto] had the play, and we came out of that even. I thought we were all right going into the third.
"[We were] doing some decent things and [then the] puck's in our net again. It's one of those games where whether we didn't do the right things around the offensive zone or manage the puck, I thought [Toronto] had a better neutral zone than we did tonight."
Looking to make up the ground they've lost and climb back into a playoff spot, the Panthers will continue their five-game homestand with a back-to-back against two Western Conference foes. After hosting Chicago on Saturday, they'll then face Calgary less than 24 hours later on Sunday.
"We're still in it and we're still in a really good spot, but we need to win," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. "We're going to do everything we can next game."
Here are five takeaways from Thursday's loss in Sunrise…
1. PYSYK POTS ANOTHER
Pysyk is quickly becoming public enemy number one in Toronto.
Jumping on a rebound after a shot from Keith Yandle, Aaron Ekblad sent a pass to Pysyk, who then buried a one-timer from the right circle to put the Panthers up 1-0 at 2:23 of the first period. In three games against the Maple Leafs this season, Pysyk has four goals and one assist.
Video: TOR@FLA: Pysyk gives Panthers early lead
Moving up from defense to forward this season, Pysyk has seen quite the spike in his offensive numbers. In 53 games, the 28-year-old hybrid has reached new career-bests in goals (9) and points (18). Prior to this season, he'd scored nine goals in his previous four seasons combined.
2. ON THE REBOUND
Sometimes the best pass can actually be a shot.
Flying into the offensive zone on a 2-on-1 break, Vatrano fired a low wrist shot toward the net that bounced off Andersen's pads and right onto the stick of Hoffman, who then rocketed the juicy rebound into the exposed twine to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead at 7:25 of the first period.
Video: TOR@FLA: Hoffman buries juicy rebound
On fire heading down the home stretch, Hoffman extended his point streak to six games and his goal streak to four games in tonight's loss. During his point streak, the 30-year-old winger has racked up five goal and three assists while also pushing his team-leading goal total up to 26.
Against the Maple Leafs, Hoffman unleashed a team-high six shots on goal.
3. HAULA GETS HIS FIRST
Erik Haula hit a pair of milestones tonight.
Acquired in a trade with Carolina on Monday, the 28-year-old winger picked up his first point as a Panther with the secondary assist on Hoffman's goal. And even though it was just his second game lacing up his skates with Florida, tonight's contest marked the 400th of his NHL career.
After posting 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists) in 41 games with the Hurricanes, Haula has been doing a little bit of everything during his first two games with Florida. In addition to his assist, he also had two hits, two takeaways and went a solid 6-for-7 in the faceoff circle in tonight's game.
4. ACCIARI MAKES IT 20
Like the players always say, put the puck on net and good things will happen.
Skating into the right circle with the biscuit on his stick, Acciari flicked a shot toward the net from a sharp angle that went off the far post and in to send Florida up 3-1 at 12:36 of the first period.
Video: TOR@FLA: Acciari snaps puck past Andersen
In the midst of his first season with the Panthers, Acciari has already set new career-highs in both goals (20) and points (26). Amazingly, prior to this breakout campaign, the 28-year-old forward had recorded just 18 goals in 180 career NHL games, all of them coming with Boston.
Bringing intangibles as well as offense, Acciari also leads Florida in hits (112) and blocks (93).
5. BOBROVSKY'S BIG SAVES
Bobrovsky added a few more clips to his highlight reel tonight.
With the Maple Leafs creating some chaos around his crease throughout the game, the 31-year-old veteran was forced to come up with a big save more than once to keep the Panthers within striking distance, including a sprawling save on Mitch Marner late in the second period.
Video: TOR@FLA: Bobrovsky sprawls to rob Marner
"He was all right," Quenneville said of Bobrovsky. "As the game went on, I thought in the second and third he made some big saves for us, a couple miraculous saves. He gave us a chance."
Over his last five starts, Bobrovsky owns a 3-2-0 record.
"It's tough a pill to swallow, but it's already behind us," Bobrovsky said of the loss.