Vokoun stymies Leafs

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The thousands of sun-seeking Canadians who supported the Maple Leafs in Tampa on Tuesday evidently didn't make the trip over here to Florida's east coast.

But it wasn't their cheers the Leafs really missed last night at the BankAtlantic Center.

It was experience on the blue line.

With veteran blue liners Mike Van Ryn and Tomas Kaberle out of the lineup, the Leafs featured three rookies on defence -- Luke Schenn, Anton Stralman and Phil Oreskovic. That inexperience was painfully evident in the second period when the Florida Panthers peppered goalie Martin Gerber with 19 shots en route to a 3-1 victory.

"Unfortunately, our defence had a rough night," coach Ron Wilson said. "In the second period we were turning pucks over all over the place.

"We just seemed to be overwhelmed by some of their speed."

Meanwhile, despite firing 38 shots at Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun in the course of 60 minutes, the Leafs found the back of the net only once.

"Vokoun played great," forward Jamal Mayers said. "Both goalies did. We just couldn't get the goals when we needed them."

The Leafs had come to Florida on the heels of a dramatic 4-3 shootout victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning two days earlier. The Leafs were buoyed in that game by the thousands of blue-and-white clad Toronto fans, whose cheers and chants of supports were noticed by players and coaches alike.

"I think it helped our team. I really do," coach Ron Wilson said after the team's morning skate yesterday.

Last night was definitely a different story.

This time around there were far fewer members of Leafs Nation in the house, which was less than full. And those who did attend were drowned out by the Panthers fans, who are hoping to see their team reach the post-season for the first time since 2000.

To be fair, the Leafs were playing a far different opponent than the Lightning, a team that has pretty much no chance to make the playoffs. For the Panthers, who entered play last night just three points out of a post-season spot, "these are the playoffs," according to coach Peter DeBoer.

The Panthers received a boost early in the game courtesy of Toronto native Stephen Weiss, whose short-handed goal just 7:15 into the first period provided the hosts with a 1-0 lead.

Weiss made Stralman look silly before flipping a nifty backhand into the top corner past Leafs goalie Martin Gerber. Sarcastic wags in the press box figured Stralman's jock still was lying on the ice in the very spot where Weiss had deked him out of it.

Truth be told, that was one of the few mistakes made in the period by the Leafs, who pelted Vokoun with 16 shots.

One of those tied the game 1-1 with less than two minutes remaining before the intermission. That power-play marker came off the stick of Mikhail Grabovski, who converted a nifty centring feed from veteran Jamal Mayers.

Then came the fateful second period.

Veteran Richard Zednik broke the 1-1 tie at 6:21 of the second, finishing off an odd-man rush.

Just 87 seconds later the Panthers widened the gap to 3-1 on a goal by Ville Peltonen.

The Leaf are hoping Kaberle, whose injured right hand has been healing, will be fit enough to play tomorrow night in Montreal.

They could really use him.


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