The Maple Leafs are desperate to make the playoffs this spring, desperate to end a postseason drought that is now the longest in the game.
On Tuesday, Joffrey Lupul scored a pair of goals within the first few minutes of the third period as the Leafs held off a fast finish by the Panthers 3-2 to help their playoff hopes.
Because the Panthers reached the playoffs last season, the Leafs are the NHL’s only team to not make the postseason since a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. The Leafs’ last playoff appearance was in 2004 — but they could change that in the coming weeks.
For Florida, Tuesday’s loss was its third in a row after the Panthers started this season-long road trip with two wins. The Panthers opened the trip with wins in Carolina and New York; they closed it with losses to the Devils, Islanders and Leafs.
“We played hard, it was a good game,” said Shawn Matthias, who tied last year’s career-high 10 goals by scoring early in the third. “There’s lots of positives from this. It was a hard-fought game. ... We have to go in front of the net to score goals. That’s where the puck was. Fortunately, we couldn’t get one.”
The Panthers have eight of their nine wins when scoring first, only that formula didn’t work out Tuesday.
Florida took a 1-0 lead into the second period after Tomas Fleischmann slid a wrist shot between the skates of Toronto goalie Ben Scrivens 6:39 into the game.
Toronto, which lost in a shootout at Boston on Monday night, bounced back in the second and scored the equalizer midway through the second from Dion Phanuef.
Before that, Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom had stopped all 11 shots he faced. Markstrom came into the game as only the sixth goalie since 2007 to allow two goals or fewer while making 33-plus saves in three consecutive starts.
Markstrom was the second Florida goalie on that list as Craig Anderson did it with the Panthers in 2008. Markstrom ended up giving up three goals on 31 shots to the Leafs.
“It was a fast game on both sides, a lot of shots,” Markstrom said. “These are the kind of games we want to come out on top. We just couldn’t do it.”
The third period started off fast and furious as Florida’s Filip Kuba was called for tripping at the end of the second. Lupul cashed in 22 seconds into the third by charging in on Markstrom and putting a Tyler Bozak feed past him.
Just 23 seconds later, Matthias tied the score as his shot deflected off Toronto’s Mike Kostka and past Scrivens.
“I tried to throw it to my backhand and missed,” Matthias said. “I got a lucky bounce right there.”
Toronto soon retook the lead with Lupul scoring a few minutes later. Florida had plenty of opportunities in the second half of the third period, most notably great chances from Greg Rallo, Scottie Upshall, Fleischmann and Tomas Kopecky.
Scrivens made 40 saves.
“We looked like a different team in different sections of the game,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “You play 25, 30 solid minutes and then have a few issues that we have to take care of. We had a fairly strong finish but not enough to get the job done.”
The Panthers said they have no further updates on the status of injured wingers Jack Skille and Eric Selleck — both of whom sustained concussions and are going through the NHL’s protocol. Skille is thought to have sustained his concussion before leaving Saturday’s game in New Jersey.
Dineen won’t even say what is wrong with Skille other than he has an “upper-body” injury, although he said Monday it wasn’t a shoulder issue. Dineen did say Skille was sent back to South Florida to be evaluated.