Leafs, Panthers starting to gel

Maple Leafs goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson (top) and Ben Scrivens during practice at the Mastercard...

Maple Leafs goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson (top) and Ben Scrivens during practice at the Mastercard Centre in Toronto, Ont., Nov. 7, 2011. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:26 PM ET

TORONTO - From the last Leafs team to make the playoffs in the spring of 2004, seven of their top 10 scorers are now retired, along with two of the goaltenders.

The Florida Panthers’ playoff memory bank is even more barren, 10 years away from the dance, with more name changes to their arena (four) than 90-point seasons (1).

The teams sit second and eighth in the Eastern Conference before Tuesday’s meeting at the Air Canada Centre, but until there’s a foot of snow and seven or more foes beneath them, don’t expect anyone to bring out the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.

“Making the playoffs is certainly in the back of my mind,” said long-serving Panther centre Stephen Weiss. “But we have a long way to go. We know if we can break out, we have core fans who show up every night who are just as hungry as we are. It would be great to bring that excitement back.”

Weiss first appeared for the Cats in the 2001-02 season and Tuesday will be his 571st game, without seeing meaningful action beyond the second week of April. He’s now on his seventh coach in new man Kevin Dineen and seventh general manager in Dale Tallon. But after seeing a decrease in team points the past three years, Florida is 6-4-3 thus far, with an identical 4-3 road record to the Leafs.

“The talk in the summer was about all the new guys we brought in (ex-Leaf Kris Versteeg, free agent winger Tomas Fleischmann, defenceman Brian Campbell), how soon we would gel, how long it would take the program to start,” Weiss said. “We didn’t want to start off behind the eight ball again. It’s hard to get back when you fall behind in this league.”

The Leafs, with an unfortunate history of staggering from the gate and saving its best hockey for the often meaningless back end of the schedule, know what Weiss means. Their 19 points in 14 games is encouraging, but in the past they’ve not beaten mid-range teams such as Florida when it counted. Thus the ACC and Maple Leaf Square sit empty when other big markets get spring revenue and fan feedback.

“It’s early, but these games matter as much as the last five games of the year,” centre Tyler Bozak said. “You don’t want to look back and see you had those few bad games early on that kept you out, like we did last year.”

The Leafs play three teams below the playoff line this week, Florida, St. Louis on the road Thursday and then back home against Ottawa. Florida showed its growing pains by blowing a 3-0 lead and settling for a point in a shootout loss to Tampa on Sunday. That’s three overtime losses, but they’re a more dynamic team to watch.

“We can do a lot better,” Weiss said.

“There’s a different type of philosophy (with Dineen). He just wants us to play to the identity we have. We have more puck possession now and a lot of games with 40-plus shots.”

Florida and Toronto were two of eight teams to emerge from the weekend with four players in double figures or better. The Cats are led by Versteeg, Fleischmann, Campbell and Weiss. Toronto has Phil Kessel, still clinging to the NHL scoring lead with 20 points, linemate Joffrey Lupul, defenceman Dion Phaneuf and centre Mikhail Grabovski.

Responding to Saturday’s 7-0 licking by the Boston Bruins will be crucial for the Leafs, but re-inserted No. 1 centre Bozak warns the Cats split last year’s series 2-2.

“Their team has been a lot different in the past two years,” Bozak said. “They kept their key pieces and added players to make them pretty complete.”

Let’s see if those mutual accolades are still being exchanged the next time they meet here on Feb. 28. Anyone for an oceanside opening playoff round?

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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