Maple Leafs-Panthers Preview

The Associated Press

It's likely no coincidence that the Toronto Maple Leafs' current hot stretch began about the same time as Phil Kessel's offensive tear, which has helped him shoot up the league's scoring leaderboard.

Toronto begins a two-game swing through the Sunshine State on Tuesday night while looking to beat the Florida Panthers for the fifth time in six meetings.

The Maple Leafs (30-21-6) have scored at least four non-shootout goals seven times during their 9-1-1 stretch, and Kessel has 10 goals and 13 assists over the last 12 contests.

He's among the NHL leaders in goals (30) and points (61) after recording his second hat trick of the season and adding an assist in Saturday's 6-3 home win over Ottawa. Kessel has scored at least 30 goals in each of the last five 82-game campaigns.

''You know when he's really playing well because of how he's competing on pucks down low in the offensive end, turning his back, protecting the puck," said forward Joffrey Lupul, who scored for the second straight game. "He's been doing that for a while.''

Though Kessel has been known as mainly a goal scorer, coach Randy Carlyle appreciates all parts of his game. Kessel has recorded an assist in four straight.

''I think with Phil, he's been classified as this one type of player, and we think that he's got more of an all-around ability, too,'' Carlyle said. ''He can distribute the puck, he can pass the puck and he can find people. He can do a lot more things than just shoot.''

Toronto, which lost the final two of a four-game road trip prior to sweeping its three-game homestand, will visit Tampa Bay on Thursday after this contest and host Vancouver on Saturday before the Olympic break.

Kessel had two assists while Lupul and James van Riemsdyk had a goal and an assist apiece in a 6-3 win over Florida on Thursday to avenge the Panthers' 3-1 win in the first meeting Dec. 17.

Jonathan Bernier made 35 saves for the Leafs in the last meeting with Florida, which dropped the final three of its four-game road trip after falling 4-1 to Columbus on Saturday.

The Panthers (21-27-7) outshot the Blue Jackets 36-30, but Brad Boyes was the only one to break through with a goal in the second period. Boyes, who was a first-round pick by Toronto in 2000 but never played a game for the franchise, has scored in three of the last four.

Rookie Aleksander Barkov, the No. 2 overall pick who is tied for third on the team with 24 points, returned after missing the previous four with a lower-body injury.

"I thought that our chances were better and we didn't capitalize on our chances," interim coach Peter Horachek said. "When you're playing from behind, trying to play catch-up hockey is difficult."

Tim Thomas, who didn't play in the last meeting with Toronto, stopped 26 shots. He's 2-5-0 with a 3.70 goals-against average over his last seven starts, allowing at least three goals in each.

"You focus on winning the next game," Thomas said. "You don't look at the big picture that you're down. At this point it sounds like a cliché, but that's all we can do."

Bernier, 7-1-1 with a 2.72 GAA during the Leafs' hot stretch, could be in net for this contest.

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