TORONTO - A night after hanging with the mighty Penguins, the Maple Leafs struggled to keep up with the lowly Panthers.
Playing its second half of back-to-back games, Toronto lacked sufficient buzz and made plenty of mistakes in a 3-1 loss to red-hot Florida on Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre.
Turnovers led to each of the Panthers' goals, scored by Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes, and the Leafs couldn't make up for those blunders at the other end of the ice, producing just one on a tip by Mason Raymond.
Florida goaltender Scott Clemmensen was the beneficiary of that offensive ineptitude as he made 28 saves for the victory.
The Panthers won their fourth straight game and for the sixth time in their past seven. Their last loss came Dec. 8 at the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks.
James Reimer gave up three goals on 23 shots, but the Leafs' fifth loss in their past six games could not be pinned on their starting goalie. Instead, this was about giving the puck away at the most inopportune of times.
The Leafs (17-16-3) were very generous with it Tuesday night, and it didn't even matter that they were facing an opponent with the NHL's lowest payroll and one missing last year's rookie of the year in Jonathan Huberdeau, who was out with a foot injury. That's because the Panthers (13-17-5) made them pay.
Centre Nazem Kadri was the first Leafs player to make a costly error, before some of the 19,076 fans even settled into their seats. Kadri lost the puck at the Panthers' blue-line, and seconds later Fleischmann had a jump on Carl Gunnarsson and beat Reimer to make it 1-0 just 3:29 in.
Sloppy play continued, but it didn't hurt the Leafs again until a disastrous defensive-zone shift in the second. Defenceman Jake Gardiner put the puck right on Bergenheim's stick, but Reimer made a stop to keep the threat at bay.
When the Leafs couldn't clear it, Bergenheim got it back in front and scored 5:54 into the second.
Boos predictably followed, and then continued when captain Dion Phaneuf's turnover directly contributed to the Panthers' third goal of the game. Boyes poked the puck away from Phaneuf and scored seconds later on his own rebound thanks to some help from Bergenheim in front.
It could've been even uglier had the Panthers converted on a short-handed odd-man rush in the third period. Shawn Matthias missed a wide-open net, and Toronto didn't have to stare down a four-goal deficit.
The Leafs cut it to 3-1 not long after on their most opportunistic play of the night. Centre Peter Holland, filling in amid injuries to Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak, held onto the puck long enough to get some traffic in front, and Raymond tipped the puck past Clemmensen 3:43 into the third.
Raymond's 11th goal of the season seemed to spark the Leafs, who showed more of a push than they had in the previous 43-plus minutes. Coach Randy Carlyle tried what he could to prod more from his team, like double-shifting Phil Kessel, but it took breaking the ice to generate more attack-zone time.
Aided by that third-period onslaught, Toronto outshot Florida 29-23, but that mattered much less than the final score.
With the victory, the Panthers moved to within six points of the Leafs in the wild-card race in the Eastern Conference. This was their third victory in the past two weeks against a team being featured on HBO's "24/7" program.
Florida beat the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 7 and Dec. 10.
NOTES — Huberdeau missed his second straight game with a foot injury. The Saint-Jerome, Que., native was considered questionable to play. ... Winger David Clarkson returned to the Leafs' lineup after serving his two-game suspension for an illegal hit on St. Louis forward Vladimir Sobotka. Clarkson, who has just six points in 23 games, picked up his 10th minor penalty of the season.
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