Maple Leafs barely show up against Panthers

Carl Gunnarsson of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for the puck with Scottie Upshall of the Florida...

Carl Gunnarsson of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for the puck with Scottie Upshall of the Florida Panthers during NHL Hockey action at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Tuesday December 17, 2013. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:07 PM ET

TORONTO - File this one under potentially Cat-astrophic.

To see the Florida Panthers come in, kick butt and give notice they’re another Maple Leafs division playoff rival hardly inspires confidence that the worst of Toronto’s schedule is past. Already losing significant ground with their November/ December slide, Toronto was plainly outworked by, on paper at least, a less talented team.

But the standings are where it really counts and with Tuesday’s 3-1 win in the first of four games against Toronto as Atlantic cousins, the Panthers join six clubs with 30-plus points all hard on the Leafs’ tail.

The loss dropped the Leafs to a record of 3-10 since a 6-0 home defeat to Columbus, another looming challenger for the last playoff spot in the East.

Florida, using a day of rest to full advantage with the Leafs falling in Pittsburgh on Monday, has now won four straight for the first time since March 2011 and six of seven.

Out of patience waiting for something to spark, Toronto coach Randy Carlyle went back to the line of Peter Holland, Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond, which had a huge game Saturday against Chicago. That meant re-assigning David Clarkson to the third unit, but it paid off quickly with Toronto’s only goal. Holland fooled the Cats by pulling the puck away from Lupul just before he was going to shoot, beating two checkers and then getting it on net for Raymond to tip in his 11th.

Complicating matters was a shot block injury to Trevor Smith in the third period that put the Leafs down a centre.

Carlyle had seen enough right after an early third-period power play that should have energized the Leafs, but ended in a 3-on-1 for the Panthers and the second empty net they missed on the night. Raymond’s goal inspired the Leafs to be harder on the forecheck and take and hold the game lead in shots. Also feeling Carlyle’s hook was defenceman Jake Gardiner for the middle part of the game.

The worst scenario for the travel-weary Leafs was the Panthers scoring early and carrying the play.

That’s exactly what happened for the first 15 minutes, starting with Nazem Kadri losing the puck trying to deke while deep in the Florida zone. Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson committed to join the rush, leaving time for rookie Aleksandr Barkov to set up Tomas Fleischmann. The latter went over James Reimer’s blocker side before some fans were even in their seats.

Reimer and some fortunate puck luck kept the Panthers from extending the lead, as the Leafs stumbled around in their zone, not moving loose pucks crisply from the zone and suffering for it.

Back from a two-game suspension, Clarkson was called for holding the stick on one thwarted breakout. The Panthers came close but couldn’t make that count, as did the Leafs in their lone man advantage when Florida’s Tom Gilbert went off for high-sticking.

The Panthers kept the pressure on from the moment the puck dropped in the second, leading to another Kadri cough-up and breakaway, which Reimer was able to get a glove on. Incredibly, the Leafs couldn’t recover that puck after dodging the bullet as Barkov and Dmitry Kulikov eventually worked it front to Bergenheim.

The third goal was a complete breakdown, Phaneuf and Gunnarsson again up too close, resulting in a 2-on-1. That was broken up, but Phaneuf then lost the puck trying to exit. After Reimer’s fine save, ex-Leaf first-rounder Brad Boyes had an easy rebound. When there was some Leaf response in the first 40 minutes, former teammate Scott Clemmensen easily kicked them aside, without a sniff of rebounds.

Carlyle used the back-to-back games to work Mark Fraser into the mix on defence, while scratching John-Michael Liles. Jerry D’Amigo, quickly recovered from a couple of hard jolts in Pittsburgh to return.

The Leafs have a day off before hosting the Phoenix Coyotes, followed by Saturday’s preview of the Winter Classic with Detroit in town.


Videos

Photos