By Bill Whitehead
Games 3 and 4 haven’t gone as well as the first two to kick off Florida’s season-high five-game road trip, which began a week ago in Carolina. Despite beating the Rangers, the end of the game was marred by the non-call on the cheapshot by Rick Nash on Tomas Kopecky. The Panthers couldn’t beat future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur often enough on Saturday night — not uncommon for a team visiting the Rock — and looked entirely out of synch on Long Island in a game where it seemed every pass was either ill-timed or just plain bad.
Tonight’s game in Toronto bears some similarity to the one in Raleigh. In that one Florida leaped out to a lead over Carolina and won 4-1. The Hurricanes arrived late the night before after a shootout loss at Madison Square Garden. The Panthers had better jump, were quicker and worked those areas to its advantage in beating goalie Dan Ellis. The Maple Leafs had to go through the same travel situation as Carolina in the last 24 hours.
Speaking of the Hurricanes, many in the NHL thought the club was either mad or genius in the offseason when it signed quirky but gifted unrestricted free agent Alexander Semin, ending the winger’s career with the Washington Capitals and countryman Alexander Ovechkin. Semin is widely viewed as a puzzle to most, but the one-year, $7 million deal Carolina signed him to was seen an overpaid gamble — one that could pay off or blow up in GM Jim Rutherford’s face.
The signing has been a winner for the resurgent Canes, but the organization went all-in by re-signing Semin to a five-year, $35 million extension on Monday. That’s more than a gambling experiment; it provides the kind of cushion Semin can lean on and perhaps slip into some old bad habits like just floating on a shift and seemingly not caring. He’s proven everyone wrong this year, but can he do it over the next half-decade? If I’m a GM, I wouldn’t count on a player as unreliable as Semin to win my $35 million wager for me.
But back to Toronto and the game tonight at the Air Canada Centre.
The Maple Leafs are coming off a grueling home-and-home with Boston, which concluded Monday night in the Bruins’ 3-2 shootout win. Toronto had tough two games full of fights, minor skirmishes and good hits. The club got back to Ontario late, and like Carolina seven days ago, the Leafs will have some tired legs, bruises and fatigue to show for that series. The Panthers will need to grab a lead early and keep the pressure on.
I expect Florida to continue its gritty play, be in the game like it has been in its previous four and come away with a win to finish the road swing at 3-2-0 before returning home to face Buffalo. The hard work on the road trip has been too good not to have a positive return.
BAD FIRST TIME: Five weeks ago at BB&T Center, Toronto finished off Florida, 3-0, in a poor performance by the Cats that brought to an end a dreadful four-game homestand. In that stretch of games, Florida wasted late two-goal leads against Washington and Tampa Bay in overtime losses, plus lost 1-0 to Montreal in the extra session. Former Cornell goaltender Ben Scrivens blanked Florida, which fell to 4-7-4, including stopping Alex Kovalev in a 1-on-1 chance after a nifty pass from Jonathan Huberdeau. Toronto goalie Ben Scrivens posted his second straight shutout by stopping 37 shots by Florida.
MARK-STRONG: Florida goalie Jacob Markstrom has been standing strong and displaying some top-notch goaltending lately. The Swedish netminder made a career-high 44 saves in a win over the Rangers, topping his 40-save effort at Montreal on Oct. 24, 2011. In his last three starts, Markstrom has stopped 111 of 114 shots on goal, a .973 save percentage.
STAT THAT MATTERS: Florida is 13-4-3 in its last 20 games against the Maple Leafs and won all four games against Toronto last season.
Florida (9-18-6, 24 pts.) at Toronto Maple Leafs (17-12-4, 38 pts.)
Tues., Mar. 26, 7 p.m.
Air Canada Centre — Toronto, Ont.
BY THE NUMBERS
FLA vs. TOR
18.1% (17th) Power play 18.1% (16th)
74.3% (30th) Penalty kill 85.4% (5th)
2.33 (26th) Goals per game 3.00 (6th)
3.48 (30th) Goals against 2.76 (18th)
0.63 (30th) 5-on-5 goals F/A 1.03 (16th)
49.4% (20th) Faceoffs 50.5% (15th)
29.6 (12th) Shots per gm 27.2 (25th)
30.8 (23rd) Shots vs. per 31.8 (26th)
Florida has 24 points in 33 games: 34.9 over 48 games.
LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida/NHL Network, 7 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)
560 WQAM/ESPN 760 AM/106.3 FM, 7 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)