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Panthers Host Maple Leafs, Look to Gain Ground in Standings

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - Joel Quenneville is calling it the "biggest game we've had to date."

In the first of four meetings between the two clubs this season, the Florida Panthers coach and his players know they will have a golden opportunity to gain some crucial ground in the Atlantic Division standings when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs at BB&T Center on Sunday night.

Entering today's slate of games, the Panthers sit three points behind the Maple Leafs for third place in the division with one game in hand. Additionally, with just one more point, Florida can also overtake the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

"We're outside looking in, so now we've got to find a way to get back in and close the gap on them," Quenneville said after Saturday's practice at the Panthers IceDen. "They're going to be very meaningful games [against Toronto] … We're going into it with it being one of those games where it's a good test for us as well. It's a good team and we know the importance of the game."

Sitting at 23-16-5, the Panthers have won eight of their last 12 games and are coming off a 5-2 win over Vancouver on Thursday. Against the Canucks, red-hot winger Noel Acciari tallied two goals, giving him 12 over his last 12 games to push his total on the season to a career-high 17.

Since being promoted to the second line and igniting his torrid stretch with the first hat trick of his NHL career on Dec. 12 (he would add a second hat trick the following game), the 28-year-old is tied with Toronto's Auston Matthews for the most goals in the league in that span with 12.

Prior to taking his talents to South Florida on a three-year contract during free agency this past summer, Acciari had posted just 18 goals in 180 games while playing a primarily fourth-line role.

"It's a good streak going right now, but you don't want to think about it too much," Acciari said. "You just want to kind of keep playing the game and getting in the right areas. Again, I've got to give a lot of credit to my linemates. They've been awesome through this whole thing."

Also in the win over Vancouver, Jonathan Huberdeau moved closer to making history.

Leading the Panthers and ranking seventh in the league with 59 points (17 goals, 42 assists), the 26-year-old winger and 2020 NHL All-Star registered two helpers against the Canucks to climb within a single point of tying Olli Jokinen for the franchise's all-time record in points (419).

On a recent episode of the Territory Talk podcast, Huberdeau said "it's going to be cool" when he eventually does break the record, but it isn't necessarily something he's thinking a lot about.

"I'm going to reflect a little bit more at the end of the season," the former third-overall pick in 2011 said. "You try not to think about it right now. It's more thinking about the team's success."

That being said, a good night for Huberdeau usually means a win for Florida. In fact, the team has gone 21-7-5 when he scores a point this season and 14-1-2 when he has multiple points. And they'll need his production tonight against the high-flying Maple Leafs.

At 24-15-6, Toronto is coming off a 4-3 shootout loss against Winnipeg on Wednesday, but has won nine of its last 12 games overall. Helping make sure his team walked away with at least a point, Matthews put up a pair of goals on the Jets to increase his lofty total to a team-leading 31.

While the Panthers own the league's fourth-ranked offense (3.52 goals per game), the Maple Leafs are just ahead of them in third (3.58). In addition to pacing the club in goals, Matthews also has the most points (54), with Mitch Marner (42) and William Nylander (38) behind him.

Since head coach Sheldon Keefe took over behind their bench, Toronto owns a 15-5-2 record.

"Any divisional game right now, especially in the second half of the season, is huge," Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said. "These are four-point swings. [The Maple Leafs] are in a great spot right now. They're ahead of us in the playoff race and they're obviously playing extremely well right now. They're going to come ready to play."

While neither team has announced a goaltender as of yet, Toronto could roll with starter Frederik Andersen, who is 21-8-5 with a 2.74 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and one shutout this season. In his career against Florida, the 30-year-old owns a 9-3-2 record.

Florida, meanwhile, could end up sending out backup Chris Driedger if Sergei Bobrovsky is unable to play after leaving yesterday's practice early with an injury.

"We think it's very short-term if he's unable to go tomorrow," Quenneville said.

In seven appearances this season, Driedger is 4-2-0 with a 2.16 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and one shutout.

Overall, the Panthers have won each of their last five home games against the Maple Leafs.

"We want to finish strong the whole second half of the season here," Quenneville said. "We know it's a battle every night to try to get in [to the playoffs]. We've felt that we've got to have consistency in the standard of how we play and compete night to night. I thought we did a good job in the Vancouver game of starting and finishing with that same type of purpose."

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Keith Yandle ranks fourth among the league's defensemen in assists (30) and is also tied for third in power-play points (17). The 33-year-old leads Florida's defensemen and ranks tied for seventh among the league's blueliners in scoring with 34 points (four goals, 30 assists).

-- Aleksander Barkov ranks second on the Panthers in assists (33) and points (46), and is also tied for second on the team in power-play goals (6). Over his last 20 games, the 24-year-old center has registered 17 points (six goals, 11 assists).

-- Evgenii Dadonov leads Florida in goals (19) and also ranks third in points (35). The 30-year-old winger has at least one point in eight of his 11 last games, scoring seven goals in that span.

-- Aaron Ekblad leads the Panthers in ice time per game (23:06) The 23-year-old also ranks first among the club's defensemen in goals (5) and second in assists (19) and points (24).

-- Vincent Trocheck has notched one goal and nine assists over his last 13 games. The 26-year-old center enters tonight's tilt on a three-game point streak in which he's tallied three assists.

-- Mike Matheson has produced five points (two goals, three assists) over his last seven games.

-- Noel Acciari leads the Panthers in both hits (79) and blocked shots (68).

-- Brian Boyle is expected to compete in the 800th NHL game of his career tonight.

-- Mike Hoffman enters tonight's matchup on a five-game point streak and three-game goal streak. The 30-year-old winger ranks tied for fourth on Florida in goals (16) and fifth in points (33). He also leads the team in shots on goal (121), including 11 over his last four contests.

PROJECTED LINEUP (NO MORNING SKATE)

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov

Brett Connolly - Vincent Trocheck - Noel Acciari

Frank Vatrano - Dominic Toninato - Mike Hoffman

Jayce Hawryluk - Brian Boyle - Colton Sceviour

Defensemen

Mike Matheson - Aaron Ekblad

Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman

Keith Yandle - Josh Brown

Goalies

Chris Driedger

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Mark Pysyk, Denis Malgin, MacKenzie Weegar (upper-body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Dec. 27: D Riley Stillman was recalled from AHL Springfield.

- Dec. 23: F Jayce Hawryluk was recalled from his conditioning loan with AHL Springfield.

- Dec. 17: F Ryan Haggerty was acquired from Pittsburgh in exchange for F Kevin Roy. 

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle 

- Military Appreciation Night

- Warm-up worn Military Jerseys for sale at Inside the Boards store near section 122

- Military mystery-signed pucks at the Foundation Table outside Club Lexus

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Sunday, Jan. 12, 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: FSF

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Panthers Radio Network: 99.9 FM HD-2 will join in progress on 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)

Tickets: HERE

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