The Panthers took advantage of an old friend’s struggling team on Tuesday.
Jussi Jokinen had a goal and an assist, and Roberto Luongo made 27 saves as the Panthers snapped a three-game losing streak by edging the floundering Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 at the Air Canada Centre.
The Leafs are now coached on an interim basis by Florida’s former interim coach, Peter Horachek, and they have been mired in a massive slump since Horachek took over. However, the Panthers have had challenges of their own, and there was a palatable sense of relief after they survived a Leafs onslaught in the third period.
“It’s a huge win,” Luongo, said after the Leafs outshot the Panthers 29-17, including 16-1 in the final period. “It’s always good to start a road trip off with a win and get some confidence.
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“Our power play came up huge for us tonight, and that was the difference.’’
It was indeed a badly needed win for the Panthers, who moved to within two points of the Boston Bruins for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Horachek’s Leafs, meanwhile, dropped their fourth in a row and slipped to an abysmal 2-14-2 since Horachek replaced Randy Carlyle behind the Toronto bench on Jan.6.
The Panthers may feel sorry for their former boss, but only to a point. They were just relieved to get their offense going after scoring just twice in their previous three games.
“It seems to go in spurts,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “We scored two goals the last three games but had 15 goals in four games before that.
“We finished 29th last year, so we know what struggles are all about. They’ve been working hard lately, and we played hard and worked hard tonight to beat them.”
Nick Bjustad scored his third goal in four games to break a 1-1 tie on a power play at 4:42 of the second period to put the Panthers in the lead for good. Jimmy Hayes added another goal at 13:48 of the second period as Florida rallied back after spotting the Leafs the first goal of the game.
Toronto dominated the third period and got to within a goal on Phil Kessel’s marker with 50 seconds left on a power play with the goalie pulled but could get no closer.
The teams traded power-play goals in the first period, with Tyler Bozak opening the scoring 4:03 into the game off a pass from James van Riemsdyk.
The Panthers responded in the final minute of the opening period as Jokinen wired a shot past Jonathan Bernier for his fifth goal of the season, leaving the teams tied 1-1 after 20 minutes.
Luongo improved to 12-1-0 in his past 14 starts against the Leafs.
▪ Former Panthers captain Olli Jokinen made his Toronto debut after being acquired from the Nashville Predators on Sunday. He had a great scoring chance early, missing an open net in the first period after taking a pass from Leo Komarov. It’s widely expected the Leafs will look to move him to a contender before the March 2 trade deadline.
▪ The Panthers’ Dmitry Kulikov served the first game of the four-game suspension he was assessed on Monday.