TORONTO – After Toronto took three-of-four points from the Boston Bruins, Joffrey Lupul prevented the Leafs from suffering a letdown against the lowly Florida Panthers.
Lupul scored two third-period goals to rally Toronto to a 3-2 victory over Florida before an Air Canada Centre gathering of 19,379 on Tuesday.
Toronto was coming off a 3-2 shootout loss in Boston on Monday night after downing the Eastern Conference’s second-place squad 3-2 two nights earlier at the ACC. Although the Leafs were completing a back-to-back, it was against the Panthers, who are last in the league.
But Toronto needed Lupul’s power-play goal 22 seconds into the third to go ahead 2-1 before the pesky Panthers tied it 23 seconds later when Shawn Matthias banked in the puck off the skate of Leafs’ defenceman Mike Kostka for his 10th. However, the Leafs regained the lead for good at 3:12 when Lupul scored his second of the game and sixth of the season.
I’ll give them credit, they came out and played real hard,” Lupul said of the Panthers. “It’s definitely not the Boston Bruins over there as far as names and experience go but they came out and played hard.
“They were forechecking hard the whole game and even the last couple of minutes they battled hard to tie it up.”
Lupul has held the hot hand for Toronto with six goals in four games since returning from a broken forearm. He also scored Monday night against Boston, giving him three goals in two games since returning from a two-game suspension.
“Definitely when you’ve scored in a couple of games in a row your confidence starts to go up,” Lupul said. “We just have to enjoy this while it goes.
“I’m not expecting it to last forever, so I just have to keep doing other things on the ice right and continue to be a factor in the game.”
Toronto goaltender Ben Scrivens preserved the one-goal advantage with a fine glove save off Florida’s Tyson Strachan with 7:15 remaining in the third and was solid in stopping 40 shots. Dion Phaneuf also scored for the Leafs (18-12-4), who were playing their fifth game in seven nights and return to action Thursday night hosting the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Leafs improved to 9-6-2 at home to remain sixth in the Eastern Conference with 40 points, two behind fifth-place Ottawa. With the victory, Toronto became the fifth team in the conference to reach the 40-point plateau.
But Toronto was pressed by the struggling Panthers. After a dismal start, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle mixed up his lines, taking Lupul from his usual spot with Nazem Kadri and Nikolai Kulemin and putting him with Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel.
“I was seeing nothing so it made it easy,” Carlyle said about why he made the change. “We didn’t have a lot going, we were a step-and-a-half behind and just weren’t skating.
“They were much more eager than we were and they won more puck battles and executed to a higher level so we had to do something. We couldn’t continue to go on that way.”
Carlyle once again had praise for Lupul’s play.
“He just plays the game at a higher level and works at a higher level than a lot of people,” Carlyle said. “That’s a great example for our younger players.”
Carlyle also commended his players for finding a way to win despite not playing their best.
“There’s a number of excuses but we can’t use excuses this time of year, we just have to find ways to get it done,” he said. “Once we got our game going then we were able to feel much better about ourselves because we were pretty low there for a good part of the hockey game.
“They reached back . . . and they’re to be commended because that’s not an easy situation they’ve just been through.”
Tomas Fleischmann also scored for Florida (9-19-6), which was coming off a 3-0 road loss to the New York Islanders on Sunday night. The Panthers suffered their third straight defeat, concluding a five-game road trip.
“We looked like different teams in different sections of the game,” said Florida coach Kevin Dineen. “We had a fairly strong finish but not enough to get the job done.
“Obviously we caught them on a tired night early in the game. I liked our tempo early but that’s something we have to keep throughout the whole game.”
Florida looked very much the fresher squad in the first, outshooting Toronto 16-7 and registering the period’s lone goal. Fleischmann scored at 6:39, getting credit for his seventh of the season when his shot deflected in off Toronto defenceman Mark Fraser.
Toronto had a good scoring chance less than two minutes into the second. A Florida defenceman fell at the Leafs’ blue-line, giving Mikhail Grabovski a clear breakaway but fell shortly after crossing the Panthers’ line and didn’t get a shot on goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who made 28 saves.
Phaneuf tied it at 9:41, blasting his sixth of the season from just outside the right faceoff circle. Matt Frattin just missed putting Toronto ahead 2-1 when his backhand hit the post and stayed loose behind Markstrom before he eventually covered it up.
“I thought we deserved a better outcome than this,” Markstrom said. “I thought we played a good game and we had a lot of shots on net.
“We’ve just got to continue to do that and good things will happen. It’s not fun to lose and let three goals in. I felt good but you don’t want to lose.”
NOTES — Markstrom came in on a nice roll, having stopped 111-of-114 shots he had faced in his previous three starts (.973 save percentage) . . . Scrivens stopped 37 shots in Toronto’s 3-0 road win over Florida on Feb. 18 . . . Toronto entered action leading the NHL in hits (1,075), blocked shots (553) and fighting majors (33).