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Nikolai Kulemin #41 of the Toronto Maple Leafs shoots on Tomas Vokoun #29 of the Florida Panthers during game action January 5, 2010 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages / Getty Images) (Abelimages/2010 Getty Images)
Nikolai Kulemin #41 of the Toronto Maple Leafs shoots on Tomas Vokoun #29 of the Florida Panthers during game action January 5, 2010 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages / Getty Images) (Abelimages/2010 Getty Images)

Leafs battle back for victory Add to ...

It certainly looked pretty grim for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Florida Panthers, after all, had rolled out to a 2-0 lead in the first nine minutes, getting both goals from former Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe and handing Toronto its 21st 2-0 deficit to start a game this season.

But being down early is old hat for this edition of the Leafs, who have given up the first goal an incredible 30 times in 43 games. This time around, against the odds, Toronto's previously struggling shooters battled back to score three unanswered goals in a 3-2 win.

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Struggling to keep pace with an Eastern Conference playoff race that hasn't been all that torrid, the comeback allowed the Leafs to breathe easy for a night as they crawled to within six points of the eighth and final postseason berth.

"We didn't know that we were going to win until the last second, so it was a great relief," said Leafs netminder Jonas Gustavsson, who made 29 saves in his first victory since Dec. 19. "We needed this win."

The Leafs got goals in the clutch last night from Lee Stempniak, Tomas Kaberle and Alexei Ponikarovsky, pacing Toronto to its first lead of the game late in the second period. It was only the second time in the last nine games that the Leafs' sputtering scorers have found the back of the net three times.

Gustavsson, meanwhile, came up big in the crease after looking a little suspect on McCabe's second goal, earning praise from his coach and teammates for shutting the door for the game's final 51 minutes.

"We needed our goaltender to have a great game tonight, and he delivered," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said afterwards.

The biggest save of the night, however, came with a little more than two minutes to play when Leafs defenceman Francois Beauchemin regrouped after a turnover to stop a sure goal by diving and deflecting Stephen Weiss's shot over the net.

"I was just desperate," Beauchemin said.

"He made a great play after he made an absolutely boneheaded play," Wilson added. "At least he kept on skating back, give him credit for that … we shouldn't have a breakdown like that with two minutes to go in the game."

McCabe's big night came with a rough ride from the 18,984 fans at the Air Canada Centre from puck drop on, but the boos only seemed to spur him on.

The Panthers' ice time leader and captain this season, McCabe said that playing in Toronto was no longer a special occasion.

"It's just another night in the office," said McCabe, who last suited up for the Leafs in April of 2008. "Last year was a little emotional coming back, but now it's just another team. There's not too many faces left over there that I even played with."

"Two shots, two goals - it couldn't get any better for him [to start]" said Kaberle, who played several years alongside McCabe in Toronto. "Finally we picked it up in the second half of the period. The second and third periods were way better."

The game was the first of four in five nights for the Leafs, who left immediately after the final buzzer for a late-night flight to Philadelphia to face the Flyers tonight.

A weary Beauchemin said the Leafs realize every game has so much importance given where they sit in the standings.

"For us, it's been all year," he said. "We had such a bad start that we had to be desperate in November."

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