TORONTO – The only two teams who haven't made the playoffs in the post-lockout NHL met Tuesday with eyes on being invited to this spring's big dance.
One drought may continue and – surprise! – we're not talking about the Florida Panthers.
The Panthers jumped all over the listless and reeling Maple Leafs, scoring twice in the opening three minutes before continuing to pour it on in a 5-3 win at Air Canada Center. Florida is 3-0 against the Leafs this season, outscoring Toronto 15-7 in those wins.
“We've started slow in the past few games so it was nice to get off to that start,'' said Mike Santorelli, who scored twice and was the top star of the rout.
Florida has a three point lead over Washington in the Southeast Division and holds the third overall seed in the Eastern Conference that comes with it.
Toronto, on the other hand, may just be done.
The Panthers haven't been to the playoffs in an NHL record 10 seasons and 11 years; the Leafs have been shutout since 2004.
“This building has been good to us this year,'' said coach Kevin Dineen, whose team has won four straight road games and three straight overall. “We want to be a good road team and [Tuesday] was a pretty good night for us.''
The Panthers were without two of their top forwards for the game as well, with Kris Versteeg staying home with a mysterious ''lower body injury” and Tomas Kopecky missing the game after partaking in the morning skate.
Marcel Goc and John Madden took their spots – and paid immediate dividends. Goc, out after apparently injuring a foot during practice, scored 13 seconds into the game as newcomer Wojtek Wolski stole the puck deep in the Toronto zone and fed his new center.
A few moments later, Santorelli took a slick pass from Jack Skille and beat James Reimer for the 2-0 lead. Florida had taken two shots on Reimer and scored on both of them.
“Against a team like that, it's extremely important to get nice leads,'' said Jason Garrison, who scored Florida's fourth goal to make it 4-1 early in the third. “We know they can score some goals. You can't beat the start. Our forwards came to play. They were moving their feet, creating chances. That may have won the game for us.''
Toronto looked to make it 2-1 at the end of the first period, but Joffrey Lupul kicked the puck past Jose Theodore on a power play chance and the goal was disallowed by a Hockey Central review.
Toronto finally made it 2-1 early in the second on Phil Kessel's power play goal, but the Panthers answered three minutes later when Santorelli scored on Florida's second power play of the night.
Whenever the Leafs scored, save for the last time, the Panthers answered. And every time the Panthers scored again, the boos and cat-calls rained down from the Leafs very frustrated fan base.
Stephen Weiss, a Toronto native, all but ended things midway through the third when he scored another goal by crashing the net. By the time Joffrey Lupul scored with 2:38 left, many weren't around to see it.
Dineen said that Versteeg would not play through Saturday's game against Nashville as the Panthers leading scorer could miss a week to 10 days. Florida isn't divulging what Versteeg's injury is, although he limped off the ice Sunday against Montreal in both the second and third periods.
Florida will definitely miss him Thursday against the host Jets in Winnipeg. The Panthers is 2-0 in Winnipeg this season as Versteeg has scored five goals there. In four games against the Jets, Versteeg has six goals and eight points.
“He's had something bothering him for a week now so we decided to give him some rest,'' Dineen said. “He's certainly had great success in that building and against Winnipeg in general. But that's part of a season, part of the package.''
Kopecky came off the ice after the morning skate and said he couldn't go. Dineen says he should be available to play Thursday.