Rocco Grimaldi speaks after scoring twice against the Leafs
Monday was quite the night for the Panthers.
Not only did Florida set the franchise mark with its 99th point this season, but also the Panthers came one step closer to the Atlantic Division title with a hard-fought 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre.
With Tampa Bay losing in Brooklyn to the Islanders, Florida leads the Lightning by four points. Both teams have three games remaining.
If the Panthers take the division, they would get home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs and open against the top wild card team next week. Metropolitan champ Washington opens with the final playoff qualifier.
By winning Monday, the Panthers can finish no lower than second in the division.
“It’s a tap on the back, but we’ll move on to the next one,” said defenseman Brian Campbell, who tied the franchise record for consecutive games played as Monday was his 373rd since joining Florida in 2011.
“It’s a big outing for us to keep going, keep climbing and see where we can take this ride.”
After a coma-inducing opening period, the Panthers came out flying in a three-goal second that helped avenge last Tuesday’s loss to the Leafs in Sunrise.
Florida opened the scoring early when Nick Bjugstad followed up his own shot by jamming the puck past Jonathan Bernier.
Rocco Grimaldi, recalled by the Panthers last month when Vincent Trocheck got hurt, then scored twice in less than three minutes to give the Panthers a 3-0 lead.
“It is a good feeling,” said Grimaldi, who scored his first of the season back in November and got the “Spacey In Space” sweatshirt for the first time.
“Toronto was coming with some jump, and I’m definitely not happy with the way I finished. We have to play better in playoffs. I’m glad we got the two points but we have to do better. ... [Goalie] Al Montoya definitely battled but we have to be better for him.”
Although the Leafs fought back in the third by scoring three times, the Panthers and Montoya (22 saves) ultimately held them off.
After Toronto scored to make it a 3-2 midway through the period, Sasha Barkov scored just 36 seconds later to give the Panthers a two-goal lead.
On Saturday, Florida battled back from a 3-0 deficit against Montreal but didn’t let Toronto return that favor.
“This is fun to be a part of,” Bjugstad said after saying Florida needs to tighten things up after its third period almost turned into disaster.
“This is a good group of guys and it has been a really fun year. We’re at Step One and we need to keep moving on. We cannot be satisfied.”
▪ Campbell, who hasn’t missed a game with the Panthers, tied Olli Jokinen (2000-08) for the franchise “Iron Man” mark in his 999th NHL game.
Campbell will pass Jokinen in his milestone 1,000th game Tuesday in Montreal.
“A thousand games is nice,” Campbell said. “I wasn’t given anything when I came in. It took me a while to get established, so it means a ton to me.”
▪ For the first time in months, Willie Mitchell traveled with the team and took part in Monday morning’s skate in Toronto. Gallant said nothing has changed with Mitchell’s status and the decision whether to return to the team remains up to him.
Mitchell has sustained a number of concussions in the latter part of his career, including one believed to be in January. Florida doctors have warned Mitchell —the Panthers’ captain the past two seasons — that returning and risking another hit to his head could be dangerous to his future well-being.
“He’s skating, working hard and feeling good,” Gallant said. “He’s going to make his own decision; I’m not saying anything. He’s still a team leader, still around the players a lot. We always talk about our veteran group being good for our young players and he’s a big part of that.”
▪ The Panthers didn’t have any wild celebrations when they learned they had clinched a playoff spot upon landing in Toronto on Sunday afternoon.
Bjugstad said everyone seemed to turn on their phones at the same time to check out how the Bruins-Blackhawks game. A Boston loss meant a spot in the postseason. Chicago won 6-4.
“We don’t have Internet on the plane so we all found out right when we landed,” Bjugstad said. “It was pretty cool. The boys were definitely excited. We weren’t spraying any Champagne, though, just because we clinched a spot in the playoffs. This is just a step for us. We’re excited, but not too excited.”
Tuesday: Panthers at Canadiens
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; Bell Center, Montreal.
Series: Tied 40-40-6.
Scouting report: The Panthers have won all three meetings against the Canadiens this season but had a tough one Saturday as Montreal led 3-0 midway through the second. Sasha Barkov had two goals and assisted on the others in Florida's 4-3 win — its first win after trailing 3-0 since the 2011-12 season.