With a chance to slide right back up into a playoff spot, the Panthers will kick off a back-to-back set in Toronto at Scotiabank Arena on Monday night. As it stands now, Florida trails Toronto by two points for third place in the Atlantic Division but has also competed in two fewer contests.
The Panthers (28-17-5) can leapfrog the Leafs (28-17-7) for that coveted spot with a win tonight.
"Everybody's looking for the same two points," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's a huge four-point swing. Let's be ready for it knowing that, hey, they've been coming out of the break on a good note."
As they prepare to take the ice for their biggest game of the season to date, the Panthers will unfortunately be without one of their best players, as Aleksander Barkov is considered "day-to-day" with a lower-body injury suffered in Saturday's loss to Montreal and will miss tonight's tilt.
In his absence, Quenneville said other players will need to step up to fill that noticeable void.
"He plays big, important minutes," Quenneville said of Barkov, who ranks second on the team in scoring with 54 points (16 goals, 38 assists). "You're obviously missing a very important piece, but that's all part of it over the course of the season."
With Barkov out, Quenneville said that both Jayce Hawryluk and Denis Malgin will slot back into the lineup. Hawryluk, who has one goal and two assists in 10 games, hasn't played since Jan. 7, while Malgin, who has four goals and six assists in 32 games, last saw the ice on Jan. 18.
"It'll be a good test for us to play the right way and do the little things we're going to need to do to have some success," Quenneville said. "Everybody's got to assume more ice time and more quality ice time as well."
After stringing together a season-long, six-game winning streak, the Panthers returned from the break with a 4-0 loss to the Canadiens. Entering today's slate of games averaging the second-most goals per game in the NHL (3.60), it marked the first time they've been shut out all season.
Jonathan Huberdeau leads Florida and ranks tied for seventh in the league with 65 points (18 goals, 47 assists), including eight points in his last seven games. The 26-year-old winger also sits tied for fifth in the league in power-play points (24) and third in power-play assists (21).
"You can see a lot offense in the league this year," said Huberdeau, an NHL All-Star this season. "A lot of teams score a lot of goals. I think our challenge is to play better defensively, especially against a team like Toronto. We know they're really good offensively, so we've got to be better defensively."
Following a 31-save performance in Montreal, Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to be back in net for the Panthers against the Leafs.
Over his last 12 starts, the 31-year-old netminder has posted an 8-4-0 record. In 15 career games against Toronto, he's gone 10-5-0 with a pair of shutouts.
"He's trending in a good direction," Quenneville said. "As the game's get deeper and the saves become more important, he seems to be in the right place at the right time to find those challenges. He's had a real good stretch at home and won some big games for us on the road recently as well."
A seventh-round pick (216th overall) of Toronto in the 2005 NHL Draft, defenseman Anton Stralman, now with Florida, is expected to suit up in the 800th NHL game of his career tonight.
"It's fun how it works, right?," said Stralman, who has recorded 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) and 69 blocked shots in his first season with the Panthers. "It's a big game; not because it's my 800th game, but because of where we are in the standings and where they are in the standings."
Righting the ship after dropping five of six games, the Leafs have won each of their last three contests entering tonight's matchup, including a 2-1 overtime win against Ottawa on Saturday.
Tied with Florida for the second-most goals per game in the league (3.60), Auston Matthews leads Toronto in goals (36) and points (61), while Mitch Marner has the most assists (37). In 14 career games against the Panthers, Marner has notched 16 points (seven goals, nine assists).
Frederik Andersen is expected to get the nod in net for the Leafs. Over his last 10 appearances, the 30-year-old goaltender has gone 5-1-2 with a .900 save percentage. On Jan. 12, he was pulled from his start against the Panthers after being tuned up for four goals on just 12 shots.
Their only previous meeting this season, Florida went on to win that game 8-4 in Sunrise.
"We were obviously up early, but they made a big push," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said of the game, which Florida led 5-0 at one point. "Knowing that, we want to stay on our A-game for the full 60 minutes and make sure they don't have a chance to do that [tonight]."
-- Mike Hoffman ranks tied for second on Florida in goals (18) and power-play goals (7), while also sitting tied for third in points (40). Over his last 11 games, the 30-year-old winger has racked up five goals and eight assists for 13 points.
-- Aaron Ekblad ranks second among Panthers defensemen in goals (T-5), assists (23) and points (28). By recording one more point, the 23-year-old will reach 200 for his NHL career.
-- Noel Acciari has registered 13 goals over his last 18 games. In his first season with Florida, the 28-year-old winger has already set new career-highs in goals (18) and points (21). In addition to his offensive numbers, he also ranks first among the league's forwards in blocked shots (78).
-- Evgenii Dadonov leads the Panthers with 23 goals, including nine over his last 11 games. The 30-year-old winger also paces the club in first-period goals (9), third-period goals (10) and road goals (14), while his 10 goals on the power play are tied for the fifth-most in the league.
-- Keith Yandle ranks first among Florida's defensemen with 39 points (five goals, 34 assists). The 33-year-old is also tied for third among the league's blueliners in power-play points (20).
-- Frank Vatrano has recorded nine points (five goals, four assists) over his past six games.
-- The Panthers are 23-2-2 when scoring first this season.
PROJECTED LINEUP (OPTIONAL MORNING SKATE)
Jonathan Huberdeau - Vincent Trocheck - Evgenii Dadonov
Brett Connolly - Noel Acciari - Denis Malgin
Frank Vatrano - Dominic Toninato - Mike Hoffman
Jayce Hawryluk - Brian Boyle - Colton Sceviour
Mike Matheson - Aaron Ekblad
Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman
Keith Yandle - Josh Brown
Scratches: Mark Pysyk, Aleksander Barkov (lower-body), Chris Driedger (lower-body)
Injured Reserve: MacKenzie Weegar (upper-body)
- Jan. 30: G Sam Montembeault and D Riley Stillman were recalled from AHL Springfield.
- Jan. 22: G Sam Montembeault and D Riley Stillman were loaned to AHL Springfield.
HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN
When: Monday, Feb. 3, 7:00 p.m. ET
Where: Scotiabank Arena - Toronto, ON
Stream: FOX Sports GO
Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Streaming 932
Territory on Tap Locations: HERE