Toronto Star

Florida meltdown

Back from break, Leafs lose to Panthers,

- Rosie DiManno In Sunrise, Fla

SUNRISE, FLA.— Two points declined, really, and two Leafs down.

The outcome could not have been any worse for Toronto in front of the biggest crowd the Panthers have drawn this season at the BB&T Center — all those snowbird fans of the blue and white taken for a roller-coaster ride, so many ups and downs that vertigo was the primary sensation experience­d. That and, perhaps, bewilderme­nt.

So it wasn’t just Jonathan Bernier with a case of the feverish dizzies on Sunday afternoon, which is why Toronto’s No. 1 goalie was left back at the hotel. Hard to rescue his teammates one more time from their own folly, whether lying flat on his back or communing with the toilet bowl.

Richard Panik was the other Leaf who disappeare­d from sight as a DNF — bushwhacke­d into another orbit in the second period by an elbow to the chin, crumbling to the ice, trying to stand up but went boom again, then wobbled to the bench and down the corridor, never to return.

It was Panik who opened the scoring with his seventh of the season, a marker long forgotten by the time it all ended 6-4 Florida with an empty-net gimme, poor Cody Franson trying vainly to play goalie. Of course, it was Franson who was in the penalty box when the Panthers went ahead 5-4, less than four minutes left in regulation time. But it should never have come to that.

If only these Leafs had some killer instinct. If only these Leafs could figure out that whole puck possession thing. If only these Leafs would smarten up defensivel­y and continue to skate rather than sitting back on their heels — both when they’re up and when they’re down.

“I didn’t think we were very good and then we had a 4-2 lead going into the third,” a clearly unhappy Randy Carlyle said afterwards. “We should have been able to take that home and play a solid enough 20 minutes to get yourself two points. That’s the disappoint­ing part.”

Four goals on just 12 shots at that point, it should be noted: Panik, Roman Polak, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri. Because these Leafs rarely have a problem turning on the red light.

The reddest part of Sunday night were Leaf cheeks, as in abashed, or at least they darn well should have been. But add one more “if only” to the litany:

If only James Reimer could have been the third period hero, as he had been in the first. But when push came to shove, Reimer — who got the start when Bernier came up green — was just one more Leaf not up to the shutdown task.

Which presents a problem, as the team moves across the peninsula for Monday night’s encounter against the Lightning in Tampa.

Carlyle was point-blank asked in the media scrum if he felt confident going back to Reimer 24 hours — 22, actually — later, although the only other option if Bernier doesn’t recover in a hurry would be Christophe­r Gibson, called up from the Marlies and arriving just an hour before game time Saturday. The coach did not exactly provide a ringing endorsemen­t of Reimer.

“Uh, I’ve got decisions to make and we’ll make those after evaluation of today.”

Echoes of “just okay,” perhaps? If Carlyle didn’t quite throw Reimer under the bus, he at least nudged him into the crosswalk and in front of oncoming traffic.

Traffic — there was a lot of that, mostly around Reimer, in the first and third periods. And for the scoreless opening frame, it was Reimer who almost singlehand­edly kept his team in the game as the Leafs were outshot 13-3, Roberto Luongo barely working up a sweat.

“Just one of those things when they got pucks and bodies to the net, and unfortunat­ely I wasn’t able to see a couple of them and they wound up in the back of the net,” said Reimer. “It’s a case where personally, from my standpoint, I want to be able to fight a little harder or smarter to see the puck. It’s just one of the games where it didn’t happen. They did a good job of getting traffic there and bodies there and tipping pucks. For me, it’s where I’ve got to try to find the puck through bodies.”

At 4-4, well, Reimer still hasn’t seen that one, off the stick of defenceman Willie Mitchell, a half-slapper that was deflected in front and beneath Reimer’s right pad. But the Leafs seemed to go into slow-motion just before that play, in a ragged halfhearte­d bid to clear the zone despite gobs of time to get it out. On the PP winner by Brad Boyes — Franson off for hooking, no call seconds before when Nazem Kadri was sent for a loop in front of the Florida net — Reimer clocked it fine, but couldn’t react quickly enough. “I saw it and it just got tipped.”

From zero goals in the first to 10 goals through the second and third period. Totally weird game.

The goals came 2Fast2Furi­ous in a frantic Period 2 as the Panthers trailed, caught up, went ahead, fell behind, then fell further back whilst in thwarted thrall to Reimer. But Reimer’s mojo wore off in the third, just as — inexplicab­ly — the Leaf team seemed incapable of appreciati­ng their good fortune and protecting it. Not a hint of urgency or sinew, but lots of what’s ailed the club even through that six-game win streak of mid-December.

“We had a lead going to the third and didn’t put them away and then couldn’t keep the puck out of our net,” said a clearly disgusted Joffrey Lupul. “Everyone could probably share the blame in those goals in the third. I don’t know. . . . we got to be able to at least get a point out of the game.”

Asked why the Leafs couldn’t clamp down in the third, Lupul was at a loss: “Three shots from the blue line that found their way in.

“If there’s one thing we look at probably, we would like to have played more of the third period in their zone. And those shots don’t happen if we’re able to maintain a bit of puck possession down in their zone. For whatever reason, we weren’t able to do that.”

This does not auger well for a team embarking on a five-game road trip in seven days, with a pair of back-tobacks. And who knows for how long without Bernier? Who, the Leafs steadfastl­y maintain, does NOT have mumps. At least, he doesn’t have any symptoms of mumps.

That’s what the doctor says. That’s what the coach says.

And the Leafs never fib about such things, do they?

 ??  ?? Reimer: “I want to be able to fight a little harder or smarter to see the puck.”
Reimer: “I want to be able to fight a little harder or smarter to see the puck.”
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 ?? TERRY RENNA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Leaf Jake Gardiner and Jimmy Hayes of the Panthers collide along the boards, startling patrons in Sunrise, Fla.
TERRY RENNA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Leaf Jake Gardiner and Jimmy Hayes of the Panthers collide along the boards, startling patrons in Sunrise, Fla.

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