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Matthews scores two more, Leafs hang on to beat Panthers in potential playoff preview

TORONTO — Paul Maurice was asked before Monday's game how to stop Auston Matthews.

"Nobody's figured that out," replied the Panthers head coach. "You're not stopping him … you just hope he's scoring the next night."

After hitting the back of the net for a 60th time over the weekend, the race for 70 is back on for Toronto's star attraction.

Matthews scored his NHL-leading 61st and 62nd goals of the season to go along with an assist as the Maple Leafs built a 5-1 lead through two periods before hanging on late to down Florida 6-4 in a potential first-round playoff preview.

"Unbelievable player, (future) Hall of Famer," said Toronto winger Nick Robertson, who finished with a goal and an assist. "I really hope he gets to 70. It would be something special to witness."

Matthew Knies also had a goal and set up another for Toronto (43-22-9), while Tyler Bertuzzi and David Kampf rounded out the offence.

Matthews is now on pace for 69 goals — which would be the most in the NHL since Mario Lemieux hit the same number in 1995-96 — with eight games left on the schedule.

"We just came out with a lot of purpose," said Matthews, whose 17 multi-goal performances is the most in a season over the last 30 years. "In the third period, I thought we were a little bit more on our heels than we'd like."

Ilya Samsonov made 26 saves for the Leafs — minus five regulars, including star winger Mitch Marner (high ankle sprain) for an 11th straight game.

"Interesting for fans," Samsonov, who picked up his 100th career victory, said of those anxious final 20 minutes. "We've got some nerves for everybody."

Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal and two assists for Florida (47-23-5). Sam Reinhart, with his 52nd of the season, Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour also scored. Sergei Bobrovsky allowed five goals on 16 shots through two periods before getting the hook. Anthony Stolarz made six saves in relief.

"We just don't bring our best in the beginning," Tarasenko said. "Good pushback, but not enough."

The Leafs, who sit third in the Atlantic Division and would have matched up against Florida if the playoffs started Monday, had a chance to clinch a post-season berth for an eighth consecutive year, but results elsewhere didn't go their way.

The Panthers, meanwhile, could have overtaken the Boston Bruins for first in the Atlantic with a victory.

"We were really good for two periods," Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "They probably weren't at their best and we capitalized on that. And then probably a little bit of a reverse in the third."

Toronto, which fell to Florida in an emphatic five games in the second round of last spring's post-season on the Panthers' march to the Stanley Cup final, opened the scoring at 13:59 of the first when Robertson scored his 12th on a breakaway.

"Huge goal, loved it," Keefe said. "He's got that game-breaking ability."

Matthews, who became just the ninth different player in league history to register two 60-goal seasons when he scored in Saturday's 3-0 victory over the Sabres in Buffalo, doubled the lead 33 seconds later with his 61st.

Samsonov kept the Panthers on a man advantage when he reached back to scoop a puck off the goal line after getting a piece of Bennett's initial shot.

Florida got on the board 47 seconds into the second when Montour scored his seventh, but Bertuzzi took a pass from Matthews at the lip of Bobrovsky's crease 39 seconds after that to bag his 19th.

Samsonov then made a huge stop on Anton Lundell that had the Scotiabank Arena crowd on its feet.

Kampf potted his seventh for a 4-1 advantage at 8:32 after Leafs enforcer Ryan Reaves won a puck battle behind Florida's net.

Knies, who fed Robertson's breakaway pass on Toronto's opener, added his 13th off a Pontus Holmberg setup for a 5-1 lead through 40 minutes.

Tarasenko got one back at 2:12 of the third when he tipped his 22nd in from the slot.

Reinhart made it 5-3 with 8:02 left in regulation with his 52nd before Bennett scored his ninth with 1:50 remaining.

But Matthews sealed the victory with his 62nd into an empty net after some uneasy moments late.

"You give them an inch and they're gonna take a yard," he said of the Panthers. "Nice to finish off with the win and two points.

"But obviously would like to clean up some stuff."

RIELLY RAMPING UP

Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly (upper-body injury) took part in the optional morning skate and could rejoin the group for Tuesday's practice.

Toronto forward Calle Jarnkrok (hand) along with defencemen Joel Edmundson (undisclosed) and Timothy Liljegren (upper-body) remain sidelined.

UP NEXT

Florida: Visits the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday.

Toronto: Hosts the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2024.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press