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Florida Panthers right wing Scottie Upshall (19) reacts after a goal by teammate defenceman Tom Gilbert (77) as Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) looks on in the second period at BB&T Center. (Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports)
Florida Panthers right wing Scottie Upshall (19) reacts after a goal by teammate defenceman Tom Gilbert (77) as Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) looks on in the second period at BB&T Center. (Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports)

Mirtle: Maple Leafs pull no-show in loss to Panthers Add to ...

It was about as bad as it gets, especially considering the circumstances.

Facing a Florida Panthers team that sat third last in the league coming in, the Toronto Maple Leafs pulled a no-show Tuesday night, looking very much like they had enjoyed their day at Fort Lauderdale beach a little too much.

They were outshot 19-4 in the first period, and 18-8 in the second – a particularly glaring example of a maddening trend the Leafs have been able to outscore during a 9-1-1 streak that had seemingly turned their NHL season around. But just as they looked about to truly turn a corner, they served up the duddiest of duds.

The Panthers downed the Maple Leafs 4-1, but the score was as misleading as they come given the course of play. This was one of Toronto’s worst outings, right from the very start, and should raise some serious questions with the Olympic break – and trade deadline – not all that far away.

Beyond the shot clock, Toronto received another serious scare late in the first period, when captain Dion Phaneuf was pounded into the end boards by Panthers forward Sean Bergenheim. Without hesitation, Phaneuf skated to the bench and hurried off to the dressing room, appearing to favour his arm or shoulder.

But after missing the first few minutes of the second period, Phaneuf was back on the ice, leading a rare Leafs rush that was quickly turned around into a Florida breakaway which goalie Jonathan Bernier calmly stopped for his 26th save of the night.

By then, the Panthers had already broken through once, taking advantage of a bad penalty by Leafs winger David Clarkson, as Tom Gilbert belted a shot from the point and in to continue a nice season for the unheralded defenceman.

For the longest time, it appeared that goal would be the difference, too. The Leafs weren’t able to execute even the simplest breakouts in the game’s first 40 minutes, and the Panthers breezed through the neutral zone but couldn’t get anything past Bernier, who continued stop roughly a puck a minute for much of the night.

Most of the game looked like an extended Florida power play, which might not necessarily have been the worst thing given the Panthers are on pace to have the least successful unit on the man advantage in NHL history.

Bernier has without question been the Leafs MVP this season, especially considering the sheer volume of rubber he’s seen. This was the seventh game this season the Leafs allowed 47 or more shots – something the NHL’s other 29 teams have done just 28 times combined – and it pushed Toronto’s season average to 36.5 per game, dead last in the NHL by a fair margin.

The Leafs had cut their shot differential down recently to about half of what it was, allowing “only” five more shots than they generated during their 11-game hot streak, largely as a result of playing a more-aggressive style offensively.

That paid off with an impressive 43 goals in that span, but the energy required to push the pace was nowhere to be found Tuesday, and many of the shots Toronto did generate were from long range and by defencemen.

Meanwhile, the Panthers strategy of peppering Bernier with as many pucks as possible finally (and predictably) paid off in the third period. Jesse Winchester deflected home a Brian Campbell attempt to make it 2-0 on Florida’s 42nd shot, followed by a goal from teammate Shawn Matthias and an empty-netter late by Marcel Goc.

Clarkson, in his first game in the lineup after eight games away, managed to get Toronto on the board midway through the third with just his fourth goal of the season, but it proved far too little, too late.

This was death by rubber poisoning, and it wasn’t pretty.

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