Two days after seeing Sidney Crosby for the first time this year, the Panthers will get their introductions to a player being touted as the next really big thing in hockey: Auston Matthews.
The top pick of the June draft, Matthews honed his game on the rinks of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he was raised.
The 19-year-old forward came into Wednesday with 10 points, which not only leads all rookies in scoring but also leads the entire league.
Matthews is definitely the centerpiece of a rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs franchise that had sunk into disrepair.
Although the Leafs head into Thursday’s game against division-rival Florida losers of four consecutive games, the arrival of Matthews in June — and Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock the summer before — has brought plenty of hope to a hockey-mad market that things are getting better.
Matthews went two games without a goal after scoring four in his NHL debut against Ottawa, but has goals in two of his past three games including one Tuesday in a 7-3 loss to Tampa Bay at Air Canada Center.
“He’s a great player, I got to work with him for three weeks at the World Cup of Hockey and I can tell you he’s a great kid,” Florida coach Gerard Gallant said Wednesday.
“On the ice, he’s extremely dangerous. He’s not your average 19-year-old. You really have to pay attention to him. But Toronto has a lot of good, young players. He’s not the only guy you have to concern yourself with.”
The Panthers have mostly taken care of business against the Leafs over the past few seasons, winning nine of the previous 12 meetings.
Florida needs a good showing Thursday after losing a 2-0 lead in Pittsburgh to Crosby and the Penguins, ultimately losing 3-2 on Tuesday night.
Thursday’s game marks the first of four consecutive divisional matchups for the Panthers, with the next three — Toronto, Buffalo and Detroit — on the road before returning home to play Boston next Tuesday.
Gallant, who is 4-0 in Toronto as coach of the Panthers, said Florida knows this isn’t the same Maple Leafs team it has seen in the recent past.
“This is a different Toronto Maple Leafs team,” Gallant said. “They’re a much different team and we know this is going to be a big challenge.”
After James Reimer started Tuesday in Pittsburgh, Roberto Luongo gets the start Thursday in Reimer’s return to Toronto. The Florida goalie spent six seasons with the Leafs.
“We play here a few more times,” Gallant said. “We just want to go with the rotation, play the guy who gives us the best chance to win. Reimer got back in there, played a strong game. But Lou is our No. 1; Reimer our 1-B. We’re going to schedule games and try and plan them out. We can’t go back and forth. Our guys have to get into a groove.”
Thursday: Panthers at Maple Leafs
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; Air Canada Center, Toronto.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640.
Series: Toronto leads 37-33-5.
Scouting report: The Panthers are now winless on the road after losing in a shootout at Tampa and 3-2 to the Penguins on Tuesday night. … Florida has won its past four games in Toronto and nine of its past 12 against the Maple Leafs overall. … Toronto has won just one of six games this season and comes into Thursday riding a four-game losing streak.