TORONTO -- Two teams heading in opposite directions continued on their respective paths as the Florida Panthers rode a fast start to a 5-3 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada on Tuesday night.
Florida, which got two goals by Mike Santorelli, won its third in a row and remained three points ahead of Washington in the race for first place in the Southeast Division.
Coach Kevin Dineen applauded the effort of the 26-year-old forward, who stepped up in the absence of Kris Versteeg, the team's leading goal-scorer, who's out until at least next week.
"For him to get those goals -- those are big goals," Dineen said. "We need production throughout our line up without Kris Versteeg for the next little bit. A couple goals out of Michael Santorelli is big for us."
The Panthers also gained two points on Winnipeg, which now trails by four and has played three more games than Florida.
In contrast, the Leafs finished a four-game homestand with an 0-3-1 record and dropped to 1-8-1 in its last 10 games. They fell four points behind eighth-place Washington in the race for the last playoff berth in the East.
There was plenty of booing from the home fans as the game went on.
"It's frustrating, but understandable," coach Ron Wilson said. "We didn't do anything at the trade deadline and we came out tentative to say the least. We talked ad nauseum to the team about the (last) 20 games and finding our focus and we weren't ready to start the game."
The Panthers scored on their first two shots against James Reimer, as goals by Marcel Goc and Santorelli gave Florida a 2-0 lead just 2:21 into the game. By the time Jason Garrison made it 4-1 by rifling Jake Gardiner's clearing attempt into the net over a sprawled Reimer at 4:38 of the third period, the outcome was all but decided and the crowd of 19,420 let its displeasure be known.
Dion Phaneuf had two of his season-high three assists in the third period as Toronto sandwiched goals, by Nikolai Kulemin and Joffrey Lupul around one by Stephen Weiss to get the Leafs within two, but it was not nearly enough.
Perhaps the only good thing for the Leafs is that they don't have much time to brood about the loss -- they have a game in Chicago on Wednesday.
"You do get exasperated and you get frustrated," Wilson said. "But tomorrow's a new day, the sun will probably come up and we've got to pull up our bootstraps and get going."
After the quick start by Florida, the Leafs spent the night trying to play catch-up.
They made it 2-1 at 10:46 of the second period Phil Kessel rolled off the boards and fired a shot from the faceoff dot to the right of Jose Theodore that beat him high to the far side. Joffrey Lupul provided a solid screen in front of the net. It was Kessel’s 32nd goal of the season, equaling his total last season.
The goal came with Weiss in the box for goaltender interference. Prior to the call, the Panthers had a 2-on-0 down low in the Toronto zone and Reimer came up with two big saves. Weiss was the third man trying to pry the puck loose when Reimer froze it and was sent off for two minutes.
After Kessel's goal, Theodore prevented Toronto from tying the game when he jammed his right pad against the post to prevent Matt Frattin from banging home a loose puck from the side of the net.
Theodore faced 31 shots on the night – the fewest in his three victories over Toronto this season, he ended the night with 28 saves.
"You look at that last game against them, we scored five goals at home, we scored five again. It just seems we are putting a lot of pressure (on them)," he said. "Tonight was a great start and we just didn’t look back."
While Theodore credits his team for their offensive prowess, he is also feeling as good as he has in net throughout his career.
"You look at the stats, they are the best they have been in 15 years, so I can’t complain," he said.
Santorelli restored the Panthers' two-goal lead at 13:54 with Clarke MacArthur in the box for boarding Keaton Ellerby. Tomas Fleischmann raced down the wing and fired a close-in shot that Reimer stopped, but Joey Crabb was unable to stop Santorelli from getting to the front of the net and banging home the rebound.
It was Santorelli's first two-goal game since Nov. 20, 2010.
"To be honest, I just wanted to try and get open. On the first one Skills made a great pass, the second one there I kind of drove the net and got the rebound," said Santorelli, who has 11 points in 53 games this season.
Dineen explained that Santorelli who had a 20-goal season in 2010-11, is suited for the type of net-crashing he exhibited in Toronto.
"We`ve really been encouraging Michael to move his feet," he said. "I think that is where he is at his best and when he drives the net good things seem to happen."
The Leafs got off to another nightmarish start that they would never fully recover from, allowing a goal 13 seconds into the game on a defensive breakdown. Luke Schenn was unable to handle a pass from Gardiner, allowing Wojtek Wolski to break in on net and feed Goc in the slot. Goc wired one past Reimer for his sixth of the season.
Goc replaced injured Tomas Kopecky in the lineup. Kopecky suffered what GM Dale Tallon called a "minor lower-body injury," most likely aggravated during the morning skate. Goc was supposed to return from his own lower-body injury on Thursday but decided he was ready to go once Kopecky went down.
It was a stroke of good fortune, according to Dineen. "I was ready to get on the phone to call and get somebody up here really quickly from San Antonio, and then all of a sudden in a stroke of good luck -- Marcel Goc comes and says he feels good," he said.
The fans jeered after the Leafs allowed the early goal, and they were even more upset after Florida scored again at 2:21. Jack Skille was given a wide birth down right wing and fed an onrushing Santorelli, who was wide open down the middle as he took the pass and beat Reimer.
"It was my fault," Schenn said. "I messed up pretty bad the first shift, and 100 percent I`ll take the blame for that. It’s a routine play, a normal D-to-D play, and I have no excuse for it. It`s tough getting behind every game and it would be nice to get the lead for once.
The Maple Leafs thought they had cut the lead to one with 26.7 seconds to go in the period, but Lupul was ruled to have kicked the puck into the net and the goal was waived off. After receiving a good pass from Kessel from the half boards, Lupul twirled and tried to kick the puck up to his stick. While he was not able to get his stick on it, the puck slid under Theodore and after a quick review it was ruled no goal.
"I made the first save and I saw on the rebound he kicked it in I was 90 percent sure that was no-goal because I really saw the kicking motion," Theodore said of the play. "You are always a little bit nervous but I was pretty confident that was a no-goal."
Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek played in his first game since Feb. 15 and made his presence felt early in the game, laying out Krys Barch on a rush in the Toronto end.
Komisarek spoke passionately about the Leafs season which he feels is still salvageable.
"There is no excuse, we need results and we need results now and our season is on the line here," he said. "We`ve shown at times here that we are a playoff capable team. We`re still in it despite the last couple of weeks, so we just got to get the job done."