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Panthers 5, Leafs 3

Leafs can't recover from dreadful start in loss to Panthers Add to ...

The chant is back.

“Fi-re Wil-son,” the Air Canada Centre fans roared, more than once, in the third period, expressing their displeasure at the Toronto Maple Leafs and their crusty coach.

Ron Wilson could only stand stoically behind the bench, enduring rather than enjoying his 1,400th game as his team wheezed through an embarrassing 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers.

Of all those games, in all those many rinks, this had to sting more than most.

“It’s frustrating but understandable,” Wilson said of the catcalls after the game. “Everybody’s frustrated right now. We didn’t do anything at the trade deadline, and we came out tentative, to say the least.”

While Wilson had fingered his goalies for the blame night after night leading into Tuesday’s loss, saying a lack of saves had led to a lack of confidence and a lack of goals, James Reimer wasn’t the goat here.

This dog was on the whole team, including the old hand behind the bench, as in what’s becoming a pattern, it got ugly right from the drop of the puck.

Thirteen seconds later, to be precise.

That was all it took for defenceman Luke Schenn to mishandle the puck in the corner, for Panthers newcomer Wojtek Wolski to scoop it up and feed Marcel Goc for a one-timer past Reimer.

Schenn cracked his $250 stick in half on the post.

“I messed up there pretty bad,” Schenn said. “First shift. One hundred per cent I’ll take the blame for that.”

Two minutes later, with a new pairing on the ice, the Leafs were down by two as Panthers no-namers Jack Skille and Mike Santorelli combined on another bang-bang play with the Leafs defence napping.

Rather than pull Reimer or call a timeout -- as he did three nights earlier with his team trailing 2-0 early -- Wilson simply watched on as the boos rained down.

The chants, which first cropped up early last season, came a little later.

In the second, with Florida hanging back, the Leafs finally got on the board. With Stephen Weiss in the box for goalie interference, Phil Kessel laser beamed a wrist shot over Jose Theodore’s glove hand, pulling his team within one.

That Toronto comeback lasted all of three minutes before the Leafs took a penalty of their own and watched on as Santorelli crashed the net and batted in a fat Reimer rebound.

Florida added the final dagger -- again on the power play -- in the third, with rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner clearing the puck onto an opponent’s stick to cap one of his worst games in his young NHL career.

The Leafs managed to close things out with another rally, scoring twice in the third to make the score look respectable, but it was again too little, too late.

And by then, the ACC was nearly empty.

“It’s not like we enjoy getting booed on home ice,” Schenn said. “Every guy’s embarrassed. It’s tough to go through a game like that.”

With the loss, Toronto can likely wave so long to the Panthers, who now hold a seven-point lead on them with a game in hand and appear to be the best of a bad Southeast Division bunch.

No, the only team left to catch will be whoever’s holding down eighth place in the Eastern Conference’s turtle derby, with neither the Winnipeg Jets or Washington Capitals looking all that motivated to pull ahead.

(The Tampa Bay Lightning are coming up fast behind them, though, sitting just one point back after another win.)

To get in, Toronto likely has to win at least 11 of its remaining 19 games -- a herculean feat given it’s taken this team the last two months to earn that many Ws.

At least their draft pick is looking better by the day.

On that front, Wilson is doing a bang-up job, as he’s well on his way to ensuring the franchise will land a top 10 selection a few months after GM Brian Burke takes the fans’ advice.

“You do get exasperated,” Wilson said. “You get frustrated. But tomorrow’s a new day. The sun will probably come up.”

Although at this rate, for this team, you never know.

Where’s the goal support?

While Reimer is getting pilloried nightly by the fans -- and his coach -- goal scoring has been just as big of a problem over the Leafs’ 1-8-1 slide.

Toronto has only 20 goals over those 10 games, including nine from the top line alone -- meaning it’s been the depth forwards that have truly disappeared.

Consider too that the Leafs iced a $10.6-million third line of underachievers in Tim Connolly, Matt Lombardi and Nikolai Kulemin on Tuesday, and there’s a large part of the problem right there.

Mikhail Grabovski going goalless in 13 February games so far isn’t helping either.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle


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