Florida Panthers

Four-goal third period lifts Florida Panthers past Toronto Maple Leafs

Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson (44) and Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri (43) fight for the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson (44) and Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri (43) fight for the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla. AP

Despite dominating much of Sunday’s game, the Panthers went into the second intermission down two goals.

A deficit like that sometimes can be insurmountable for the goal-challenged Panthers.

It wasn’t on this day.

The Panthers stayed aggressive in the third and scored four goals in the final period en route to a rousing 6-4 win over Toronto at BB&T Center.

The Maple Leafs had been 14-0 when leading after two periods.

“We were upset and frustrated because we were outplaying them, but they got four scoring chances and scored on all of them,’’ said defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, who started Florida’s goal assault in the third by scoring off a long slap shot 2:45 in.

“We were outplaying them and deserved to win. For the most part, we played better than them. But we gave them Grade A chances. They are a team that will score if you give them room like that.’’

Although the Panthers have been outshooting their opponents almost every night, they continue to struggle in putting the puck into the net.

Sunday, Florida outshot the Maple Leafs — who lead the NHL with 122 goals — by 13 in the first two periods and scored twice off their 29 shots.

In the third, the Panthers went to more of the quality-not-quantity route and scored four goals off just six official shots.

“It was a great battle-back for us,’’ said Scottie Upshall, who scored into an empty net to ice the game with 1:25 left.

“We played great for 55 minutes. When we compete and play our game, we really don’t have to adjust to anything. You hate to play against teams that play a hard, tight game. And that’s what we are.’’

The two teams played a scoreless game for more than 25 minutes before the goal gates came flying open.

The Leafs opened the scoring 6:39 into the second when Richard Panik scored.

Florida matched it almost two minutes later with a Jonathan Huberdeau goal, and Jimmy Hayes made it 2-1 a few minutes after that.

Toronto then scored three times — off four shots within a span of 4:43 — to close out the second and take a 4-2 lead into the third.

The Panthers would not go quietly.

“We had played well but gave them areas that were uncharacteristic for us,’’ said Brad Boyes, who potted the game-winner off a power-play chance with 3:15 remaining.

Said coach Gerard Gallant: “I was frustrated because we usually don’t make those mistakes. We talked about it. We were down two goals and had been playing well. We just made a few mistakes that cost us some goals.’’

In the third, the Panthers continued to come hard at backup James Reimer and tied the score midway through the period on a long shot from Mitchell.

Boyes gave the Panthers their first lead since the second after he knocked down a long shot from Kulikov and put it through.

Upshall was able to get the empty-net goal as it won its first game not decided by a single goal since beating the Ducks in Anaheim 6-2 on Nov. 16.

“It was nice getting that empty-net goal because they had 6-on-5 in our zone and were pretty good,’’ Gallant said. “It was good to have a two-goal lead.’’

▪ The Panthers once again played in front of their biggest home crowd of the season Sunday as the team’s announced attendance was 17,877. Last Monday’s announced crowd of 15,947 stood as Florida’s largest of the season for just a few days.

And with Tuesday’s game with Montreal close to selling out, Sunday’s number is likely to be eclipsed as well.

“It was a good atmosphere, and we enjoyed it,’’ Mitchell said.

“You can feel South Florida starting to embrace the way and style we’re playing. We give an honest game every night and we’re competitive. I think people are seeing that.’’

▪ Reimer got the start for Toronto on Sunday after usual starter Jonathan Bernier fell ill.

Coach Randy Carlyle told reporters the Leafs’ “medical staff believes he does not have the mumps. It’s the flu.’’

▪ There were quite a few familiar faces on both sides of the ice Sunday.

Florida center Dave Bolland spent last season with the Leafs before signing a five-year deal with the Panthers on July 1.

Toronto forwards David Booth (2006-11) and Mike Santorelli (2009-13) both spent time with the Panthers. Maple Leafs assistant Peter Horachek was Florida’s interim head coach last season.

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