Toronto Maple Leafs blank Florida Panthers without Tyler Bozak


Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs is congratulated by teammates after scoring his first goal of the second period against the Florida Panthers.

Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs is congratulated by teammates after scoring his first goal of the second period against the Florida Panthers.

Photograph by: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images,

MIAMI — For Tyler Bozak, the official word was it was “maintenance day.” For the Toronto Maple Leafs, who on Thursday played their first game of the season without the top-line centre in the lineup, it was a taste of what the future might hold if the pending unrestricted free agent does not resign with the team in the summer.

If that happens, the Leafs appear to have quite the backup option in Nazem Kadri. Playing on a line with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, the 22 year old picked up two assists as Toronto defeated the Florida Panthers 4-0.

“I’ve always wanted to play with Phil, just because he’s a world-class player,” Kadri said. “I want to make myself better by playing with those types of guys.”

At this point in the season, head coach Randy Carlyle can afford to rest bodies and experiment with the lineup.

By bouncing back after a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, the Leafs moved one step closer to meeting the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, although Toronto no longer has a chance at gaining home-ice advantage.

It will depend on the outcome of Saturday night’s game against the Canadiens, as well as how the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators finish the season.

As of right now, Toronto could finish fifth or sixth and potentially start the playoffs against either Montreal, Boston or the Washington Capitals.

“We’re going to have to play games with different lineups as we go forward,” Carlyle said of moving bodies around in the lineup. “What we’re trying to do is make sure everyone is 100 per cent healthy when we get them an opportunity to play.”

In other words, the line juggling — Mikhail Grabovski was moved to a line with James van Riemsdyk and Kessel –might have only been only temporary.

“There’s some things that have been set in stone,” Carlyle said. “I don’t think you’re going to see us veer too much away from that.”

Bozak has played all of this season alongside Kessel, whom he shares a condo with in Toronto, where he is fourth on the team with 12 goals and 28 points. It makes sense that Carlyle would not change things at this point of the season.

Still, there was some benefit to at least trying Kadri with new linemates.

For one, it helped Kadri get out of an offensive funk that saw him manage just three points in his previous 10 games. And secondly, it gave Carlyle — and management — an idea of their options moving forward in the playoffs and beyond.

“We just thought with Bozak, he’s been worn down and you get other people an opportunity. Like I said, you’re trying to get other people going. It was good to see some people get some goals tonight. Specifically, Clarke MacArthur got a goal for us and hopefully that’s a sign of things to come.”

Whether Kadri and Kessel are a sign of things to come is a bit more ambiguous.

Bozak’s value as a No. 1 centre has been the source of much debate with Leafs fans, with some believing he is playing above his head and others seeing him as a versatile player who wins faceoffs, kills penalties and has forged chemistry with Kessel.

Of course, it might not be an exclusive relationship. Kadri, who is second on the team with 44 points in 47 games this season, has been one of Toronto’s most consistent offensive players despite playing third-line minutes. On Thursday, he showed what he could do in a more starring role.

In the second period, he quickly transitioned up the ice and found Kessel with a tape-to-tape pass to give the Leafs a 3-0 lead. Exactly three minutes later, the pair connected again, with Kessel scoring his team-leading 19th of the season.

“He’s a good player,” Kadri said of Kessel, who is tied for sixth in NHL scoring with Eric Staal. “It’s pretty easy to play with him, especially with Lupul on the other side, that makes quite the line. I had fun tonight. It’s always fun to play with those types of players. They can find you when you don’t even expect to get the puck.”

Kadri even provided some grit, by provoking a fight with 6-foot-4 hulking defenceman Alex Petrovic that ended with Petrovic sucker-punching Kadri and Toronto’s Mark Fraser getting tossed for coming to his teammate’s aid.

“He whacked me and I whacked him back and … the next thing you know I went to turn for the rebound and I got a fist in the face,” Kadri said. “I think that’s why Fraser did what he had to do and I gave (Petrovic) a couple as well. I don’t feel too bad about it.”

It was, said Carlyle, part of the chippy game Kadri brings. And with or without Bozak in the lineup, it was the type of effort that should bode well for the Leafs in the playoffs.

“I can’t wait. We’ve been away from the city for almost too long. It was nice to get the up here and kind of throw our feet up a little bit and get two points out of it, but I’m ready to go back and get back to business on Saturday.

* * *

The monkey is finally off his back. MacArthur, who had gone 15 games without a goal, scored for the first time since March 9 on Thursday.

“I can feel it in my lower back right now,” he had joked of the metaphorical monkey. “The tide’s going to turn here, it’s just a matter of when.”

* * *

After managing just 18 hits in Wednesday’s loss, Carlyle stressed the Leafs return to their template of playing physical. “When this hockey club is on its game,” he said, “it’s usually somewhere over than 50 (hits).”

Toronto did not reach that number, but the team responded by outhitting Florida 45-31.

“After two periods, we had 35 hits,” Carlyle said. “We had 18 last night, so we were much more involved in the game.”

* * *

On a team that will finish with the worst record in the NHL, Jonathan Huberdeau has been the lone bright spot. The Panthers forward headed into Thursday night’s game tied for the lead in the rookie scoring race with 28 points and should get consideration for the Calder Trophy.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, he always seems to be matched up against the other teams’ top pairing,” said Florida head coach Kevin Dineen. “That’s a tough thing as a young kid and he’s had a great first showing.”

Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs is congratulated by teammates after scoring his first goal of the second period against the Florida Panthers.

Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs is congratulated by teammates after scoring his first goal of the second period against the Florida Panthers.

Photograph by: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images,

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