The collapse is over for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the free fall continued Thursday night.
With its playoff hopes extinguished two nights earlier, Toronto limped into BB&T Center with a pared-down lineup and a journeyman goalie making his first NHL start.
Thanks to a pair of third-period goals from Nick Bjugstad, Florida ran away with a 4-2 win to take three of four in the season series.
“We needed to get pucks at the net. That was the first game for their goalie, and we wanted to get some shots,’’ said Bjugstad, a rookie who is now Florida’s leading scorer.
“We started off well, which is a different technique for us. It was nice to have the lead.’’
Any thought of the Panthers making the playoffs disappeared months ago, yet for Toronto, the sting of this disappointment is still very fresh.
On March 13, Toronto was ranked second in the Atlantic Division and held a seven-point lead on a playoff spot.
The team lost its next eight games and will miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 years. Last year, Boston rallied and knocked the Leafs out of the first round.
For Florida, Thursday’s win was its second in three games — a rare bright spot in a season of bleak ones. Toronto, meanwhile, has lost 11 of 13 heading into Saturday’s finale at Ottawa.
The Panthers’ season also concludes Saturday against the visiting Blue Jackets.
“We had two games left and I really wanted to see that positive response at this time of year,’’ said coach Peter Horachek, whose team never trailed. “We wanted to feel positive about these two home games. It was something we needed to do. We want to make sure we’re doing the right things.’’
With Roberto Luongo back for the Panthers, Toronto countered with 30-year-old Drew MacIntyre in net.
MacIntyre, who broke into the minors in 2003, started well but found himself down 1-0 when Brandon Pirri continued his hot streak for the Panthers by scoring 6:06 in.
Toronto tied things 4:13 into the second when Tyler Bozak zipped some high cheese past Luongo. Florida took the lead into the second break when Brad Boyes popped in Nick Bjugstad’s feed with three seconds left in the period.
Bjugstad, perhaps excited his Minnesota Golden Gophers were playing in the Frozen Four, made it 3-1 early in the third before putting the capper on the game minutes later.
“That was one of my longest droughts of my life,’’ said Bjugstad, who hadn’t scored a goal in 20 games. “It was good to get off that.’’
The Panthers had an old friend back in the building on Thursday as Scott Clemmensen was recalled to back up Luongo against Toronto.
Usual backup Dan Ellis, who filled in for Luongo on Tuesday, was “nicked up” at practice on Wednesday, said Horachek.
Clemmensen wasn’t able to take part in Thursday’s morning skate, however, because of flight issues on Wednesday. Although Clemmensen arrived in Fort Lauderdale around 1 a.m. on Thursday, his equipment bag didn’t get in until the skate had already concluded.
• Bjugstad recorded three points to take over as Florida’s leading scorer with 38 points.
The Panthers have one game left to try to avoid setting an NHL record for fewest points by a team’s leading scorer.
Minnesota’s Scott Pellerin had 39 points for the expansion Wild in 2000-01.
• Ron Young, the team’s longtime timekeeper and crew chief for the NHL’s off-ice officials, dropped the ceremonial first puck before Thursday’s game.
Young has been working Panthers games since their first season in 1993 but is moving to Toronto after Saturday’s season finale.