The easy thing would be to lay this post-Christmas turkey at the feet of James Reimer.
True, the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender did not cover himself in glory against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday in the Leafs’ first game after the NHL’s Christmas break. But several teammates were equally culpable for the 5-3 loss to the Panthers in front of the hosts’ biggest crowd of the season, announced as a sellout gathering of 20,406.
There were a large number of Leaf fans in that crowd and their dismay grew as the Leafs alternated between bad goaltending and equally bad mistakes. That this came against an undermanned Panthers team coping with seven injured forwards was especially disconcerting.
“There were a couple of major mistakes by the defencemen,” said Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, who must have felt some embarrassment for his team’s disarray in his first game since announcing his own contract extension on Christmas Day.
“We looked a little rusty on parts of our game,” Wilson said. “Twice, we shot ourselves in the foot.”
The shots to the foot came on the Panthers’ second and fifth goals. Rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner was caught pinching early in the second period, which resulted in a breakaway goal by Panthers forward Bill Thomas. On the fifth one, which stopped a Leaf comeback cold in the third period, Leaf defenceman Luke Schenn tried to be Bobby Orr only to lose the puck and allow Tomas Fleischmann to score.
However, both Reimer and Gustavsson were also at fault for those goals. Reimer froze and failed to cover the side of the net, which allowed Thomas to fan on his shot and see the puck slide into the open net. And Gustavsson failed to make a save when his teammates needed one on Fleischmann’s routine shot.
Reimer was pulled four minutes, 13 seconds into the second period after he allowed his third goal on seven shots, a deflection by Panthers forward Jason Garrison. Before the game was two minutes old, Reimer let rookie defenceman Eric Gudbranson’s ordinary shot from the point sail over his shoulder.
“It was just a tough game,” Reimer said. “The second goal [Thomas’s breakaway] you can’t do much. I just missed the guy.
“But on the other two, I should have battled harder.”
Swtiching to Gustavsson did not work out right away, as the Leafs were caught with too many men on the ice. This gave the Panthers a five-on-three power play. Former Leaf Kris Versteeg scored by bouncing a shot from behind the net off the back of Gustavsson’s leg and into the net to put the Panthers ahead 4-1.
When Dion Phaneuf scored midway through the second period the Leafs finally found their legs as did Gustavsson, whose play improved as the game went on.
“We really didn’t have the bounces,” Gustavsson said. “We have to shake it off and keep going.”
But the Leafs could not pull even. The closest they managed came early in the third period after the Panthers ran into penalty trouble. Mikhail Grabovski scored his second goal of the game when the puck went in off his foot to cut the Panthers’ lead to 4-3.
Then Schenn made his ill-advised rush and Fleischmann scored.
“On the last goal we shouldn’t have a defenceman who doesn’t normally lead attacks trying to stickhandle through their entire team,” Wilson said.
While two Leafs goaltenders were in meltdown mode, at the other end of the ice Jose Theodore was enjoying a second stone-job on the visitors. The veteran goalie made 15 saves through the first two periods to hold off the Leafs while his teammates made the most of their few scoring opportunities by scoring four goals on eight shots. He finished with 29 saves.
In the previous meeting between these teams, Nov. 8 in Toronto, Theodore made 38 saves in a 5-1 Panthers win. Florida coach Kevin Dineen said Tuesday that game was critical to his relationship with Theodore since both are in their first season with the team.
“That was a real statement game for him,” said Dineen, as Theodore had to prove he could be an adequate replacement for Tomas Vokoun. “In terms of our relationship, that was a turning point.”
The Phaneuf goal gave the Leafs some energy going into the last half of the second period. They buzzed the Panthers net long enough to prompt Dineen to call a timeout at 11:35 to settle his players.
The Leafs kept going immediately after the timeout but came away empty-handed due to Theodore.
Partway through the game, defenceman Korbinian Holzer showed up in the press box at the Panthers’ arena. He was called up from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies by the Leafs to serve as their seventh defenceman now that John-Michael Liles is out indefinitely with what the Leafs call “concussion-like symptoms.”