NHL Preview from The Sports Network
Tuesday, December 27th (All times eastern)
Toronto Maple Leafs (18-13-4) at Florida Panthers (18-11-7), 7:30 p.m.
(Sports Network) - Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke finally feels like he has the right mix of players to end the club's six season playoff drought.
The Panthers are just trying to find enough healthy bodies to help them hold onto their spot atop the Southeast Division standings.
Toronto takes the ice tonight for the first time since head coach Ron Wilson's contract extension was announced looking for a third straight victory while also trying to extend Florida's current skid to four in a row.
The storied Maple Leafs haven't reached the postseason since 2003-04, missing out on all six seasons since the end of the lockout. They are 119-120-42 under Wilson since he took over before the 2008-09 season, but currently sit sixth overall in the Eastern Conference with 40 points, seven behind the first-place Bruins in the Northeast standings.
Despite Wilson coming up empty in terms of playoff appearances since taking over, Burke has been analyzing the club since last year's All-Star break and has liked the progress his coach has made with the players he has assembled.
"It's easy to say 'fire the coach' when the team isn't winning, but if you haven't given the coaching staff good enough players, I don't think it's fair," Burke said in announcing Wilson's undisclosed extension on Monday. "So, all along I've said to [Wilson], until a point where I think we have a team that can compete for a playoff spot, then I expect performance."
Toronto certainly performed in its final game before the Christmas break, rolling past the New York Islanders 5-3 on Friday. Clarke MacArthur led the way with a goal and an assist, while Nazem Kadri, Carl Gunnarsson, Joey Crabb and Joffrey Lupul all added goals.
Tim Connolly had two assists and James Reimer made 30 saves as Toronto won back-to-back games for the first time since a three-game win streak from Nov. 22-27.
"I think we had a good start to the game," Wilson said. "When you get a three- goal lead, you try to make the next goal prettier, and we allowed them to get back into the game. It's nice to get a little bit of a cushion and let our team relax and get over some of the bumps and bruises."
Defenseman John-Michael Liles missed the win with a sore neck and is questionable for tonight.
Toronto has been paced all year by Phil Kessel, who is tied for second in the NHL with 20 goals and 41 points. However, one player Wilson and Burke may be missing is current Panther Kris Versteeg, who leads Florida with 16 goals and 37 points.
Versteeg was dealt to the Maple Leafs on June 30, 2010 after winning a Stanley Cup with Chicago, but the Leafs dealt him to the Flyers in February of that season after falling out of contention. He landed in Florida in an offseason trade this past summer and has been a key reason that the Panthers lead the division by six points over the Jets.
Versteeg and company came up empty in a big way on Friday, getting blasted by the Bruins 8-0. Jose Theodore gave up four goals on 14 shots before being lifted after one period. Scott Clemmensen made 17 saves in relief as the Panthers lost a season high-tying third straight game for the second time this month and third time this year.
"We were very porous," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said after is club's sixth loss in eight games. "We didn't generate any offense."
Injuries may have played a factor as Florida was without second-leading point generator in Stephen Weiss. He became the seventh Panther forward to suffer an injury and four of those skaters, including Weiss, have all been hurt within the last four games.
Three of Florida's injured players -- Jack Skille, Marco Sturm and Sean Bergenheim -- scored when the Panthers dealt a hosting Toronto club a 5-1 defeat back on Nov. 8 in the first of four meetings between the teams this season.
The Panthers have gone 9-3-1 versus the Maple leafs over the past 13 meetings and have taken three straight and five of the last six at home in this set.
Kessel had the lone goal for the Maple Leafs in the most recent loss.
12/27 10:32:13 ET