TORONTO (CBSMiami/AP) —Last season it was the Florida Panthers who took the league by surprise and made a rare appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This season it appears to be Toronto’s turn.
Auston Matthews broke Wendel Clark’s 31-year-old franchise rookie record with his 35th goal of the season, and the Maple Leafs earned a 3-2 win over Florida on Tuesday night.
The victory kept Toronto (87 points) one point up on the Boston Bruins (86) for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and four up on the Tampa Bay Lightning (83).
Curtis McElhinney made 25 saves to earn the win for the Leafs. Leo Komarov and Zach Hyman also scored for Toronto.
James Reimer allowed two goals on 14 shots for Florida before he was knocked from the game with an injury and replaced by Reto Berra, who made 10 saves. Reilly Smith and Jaromir Jagr scored for the Panthers.
Starting in place of injured No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen, McElhinney was the focus of attention in Toronto heading into the game, but Matthews quickly wiped that away with his record-setting score nearly 12 minutes in.
Hyman instigated the action, controlling the puck from behind the Florida goal before finding Matthews in front, his shot slipping between the pads of Reimer to top Clark for the franchise mark.
Clark said he knew after the second period of Matthews’ NHL debut against Ottawa — when he scored four goals, including three after less than 22 minutes — that Matthews would likely shatter his record from the 1985-86 season.
“It’s good,” said Clark, who works as a community representative of the Leafs. “If we’re going to be any good we need these young guys breaking all (these records) and doing well.”
Mitch Marner recently tied Gus Bodnar’s franchise rookie mark for assists (40), William Nylander matching team rookie records for power-play goals (nine) and power-play points (25) while also establishing a new rookie mark for the team with a point streak that was extended to 12 games on Tuesday night.
Matthews joined Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby as the only rookies since the 1995-96 season to scored 35 goals.
Clark compared him to former Leafs captain and franchise leading scorer, Mats Sundin. Just like Sundin, Clark said, Matthews could be dangerous all by himself, but also gifted in finding teammates for open looks.
He said Matthews had a “goal-scorer’s touch” and the “hands of a little guy”, his strength also likely to grow in the years ahead.
Matthews also increased his NHL lead for game-opening goals — now with 14 on the season — and pulled within four points of Peter Ihnacak’s franchise rookie mark for points (66), set during the 1982-83 season.
The Leafs controlled almost every aspect of the first period, outshooting the Panthers 13-3 while spending shift after shift in Florida’s zone. Komarov increased Toronto’s lead to 2-0 less than three minutes after Matthews’s goal, finishing a 2-on-1 opportunity with Connor Brown.
Falling out of the playoff race in recent weeks, Florida found some pushback in the opening minutes of the second, but McElhinney was sharp. He stopped Jussi Jokinen and Smith on consecutive chances around the midway point of the period.
The 33-year-old was starting with Andersen missing his first game because of an upper-body injury suffered Saturday in Buffalo when he was bumped in the head by Sabres forward William Carrier.
It was a similar play that knocked out Reimer — Toronto’s longtime starter before Andersen — from Tuesday’s game, Brian Boyle clipping him as he circled the net. Reimer stayed down in apparent discomfort immediately afterward as Boyle fought Colton Sceviour. He finally helped to a sitting position by a team trainer and left the ice with a persistent grimace on his face.
Smith got the Panthers on the board with less than five minutes left in the second, beating Matthews to the net as he redirected Keith Yandle’s point pass.
McElhinney made two big saves early in the third to keep the Leafs in front, the latter a right pad stop on Aleksander Barkov. It was shortly after, that Hyman scored a short-handed goal that increased Toronto’s lead back to two.
Hyman became the fifth Leafs rookie to score at least 10 goals this season.
Jagr pulled Florida within one in the final minute of regulation.
Panthers: Head to Montreal to face the Canadiens on Thursday night.
Maple Leafs: Head to Nashville to face the Predators on Thursday night.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)