The Panthers weren’t about to let the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs play spoiler on Thursday night.
Brandon Pirri scored twice and Roberto Luongo made 24 saves as the Panthers gave their playoff hopes a real boost with a 4-1 win over the foundering Leafs before 18,831 fans at the Air Canada Centre.
Jonathan Huberdeau and Steven Kampfer had the other Florida goals, and Aleksander Barkov added a pair of assists for the Panthers, as they moved to within three points of the final Eastern Conference postseason spot.
Boston lost to Anaheim in overtime, and Ottawa lost to the New York Rangers on Thursday, leaving Florida trailing both the Bruins and the Senators by three points with eight games to play.
The significance of what happened out of town wasn’t lost on the Panthers.
“We got some help tonight in the playoff picture,” Florida coach Gerard Gallant said. “That is good.”
The Panthers have been used to scoreboard watching lately, but to a man they continue to insist that they are completely focused on doing what they need to do to pick up as many points as possible down the stretch.
“Every game is like a playoff game to us now,” Luongo said.
“We really needed this one tonight.
“We’re in playoff mode. Every game is so crucial. We believe in our team, and we’re going to keep playing away and see what happens.”
Playing spoiler is the only thing the Leafs have left to play for this season. Toronto, already mired in its worst season in 16 years, lost for the seventh consecutive time.
The teams played a listless and scoreless first period, with both teams managing nine shots on goal but few good scoring chances.
The sluggish start to the game didn’t please Gallant.
“Our pace wasn’t very good in the first period frankly,” Gallant said. “We capitalized on some chances and really penetrated in the second period, and that was the difference.”
Florida certainly took control in the second period with Huberdeau and Kampfer scoring goals 30 seconds apart early in the period to open the scoring.
Pirri added his 19th goal of the season on a wrist shot from the faceoff circle that went through the pads of Toronto starting goalie Jonathan Bernier at 14:34, ending Bernier’s night after he allowed three goals on 16 shots.
James Reimer came in for the Leafs and made 11 saves the rest of the way, as the Panthers outshot the Leafs 28-25.
Pirri completed the scoring with his second of the night and 20th of the season into an empty net with 1:24 left to play. Pirri now has 17 goals in his past 22 games.
Toronto spoiled Luongo’s shutout bid at 9:13 of the third period when Sam Carrick scored his first NHL goal on a pass from Morgan Rielly to make it 3-1.
The Panthers continue their road trip with games in Montreal, Ottawa and Boston before returning home to play their final five games of the season, including another matchup against the Bruins.
▪ The Panthers did not have a power-play chance until 3:50 to play when Phil Kessel was penalized. Florida failed to score, while the Leafs were 0 for 3 with the extra man.