Leafs trounce Panthers

Leafs Lee Stempniak and Panthers Dmitry Kulikov fight for the puck during Friday night's game in...

Leafs Lee Stempniak and Panthers Dmitry Kulikov fight for the puck during Friday night's game in Sunrise, Fla. (QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:05 AM ET

SUNRISE, Fla. -- If Nik Hagman keeps this up, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke will be hanging up the phone when his brethren from around the league call to talk trade.

For the second time in this two-game trek through the Sunshine State, the Finnish forward scored a pair of goals, leading the Leafs to a 6-4 win over the Florida Panthers at the BankAtlantic Center last night.

Throw in a pair from designated sniper Phil Kessel and suddenly a team that struggled to put the puck in the net has bulged it 10 times in its past two games -- back-to-back wins over Florida and, two nights earlier, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Maybe the worm has finally turned for us," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said after yet another come-from- behind effort to give his team its sixth win on the season and move four points up on last-place Carolina in the NHL standings.

"We've been outshooting everybody and we've got a couple of really confident guys in Phil and (Hagman) right now. The puck has just found a way to get into the net."

Hagman's game-winner, at 12:28 of the third period, ended an up-and-down and often sloppy game that saw four lead changes.

With Kessel and Hagman firing, the team suddenly has won three of its past four and has points in five consecutive games.

Confidence can be a fragile thing for goal-scorers but Hagman, who has drawn interest from a handful of GMs around the league recently, clearly has regained what once was missing for his game.

"Early in the season, we were just hoping we could score. Now we feel confident that we can," said Hagman, who has 13 goals on the season.

And then there is Kessel, now with eight goals in the 12 games since he has joined the lineup following off-season shoulder surgery.

It appears that Kessel is starting to benefit from being on a line with big Alex Ponikarovsky who had a goal and three setups last night -- doubling his season assist total -- including a helper on Matt Stajan's empty-netter.

While the Leafs have to stop digging themselves into early holes, having reliable goal-scorers such as Kessel and Hagman eases the sense of panic.

"You don't like (getting behind early). You wonder why it happens but you just move on," said Wilson, whose team will have a rare weekend off after returning home last night. "You still have 57 minutes to win the game and from that point on, we outscored them 6-2."

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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