TORONTO -- It has been an interesting season for Joffrey Lupul, to say the least.
The veteran right-shooting left wing broke his arm in the Toronto Maple Leafs' fourth game of the season when he was nailed with an errant Dion Phaneuf slap shot, missed 25 games, then stormed back with three goals in two games before being suspended for two for an illegal hit.
"It's a running joke with our team that he only stays for five games at a time," said Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, who took over from Ron Wilson late last season just before Lupul was lost with a shoulder injury. "Since I started coaching he's only been in the lineup for 10 games. He got hurt last year then again this year, and then he got suspended."
Since returning from the suspension, Lupul has picked right up where left off, scoring twice Tuesday night in a 3-2 nail-biter against the visiting Florida Panthers.
The Panthers, who have been decimated with injuries and are last in the overall standings, gave the Maple Leafs a tough test. Despite a slow start, Toronto managed to win its third straight at home behind 40 saves from Ben Scrivens.
Lupul, who scored once in a 3-2 shootout loss at the Boston Bruins on Monday, opened Tuesday night on a line with Nazem Kadri and Nikolai Kulemin. But when the Maple Leafs were outshot 16-7 in the first period and failed to generate any serious offense, Lupul was placed on a line with old mates Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak. The trio worked instant magic.
"It was just a little shakeup," Lupul said. "Things were a little stagnant for us in the first period, and I don't know if it's a permanent change, but sometimes a little switch can freshen everybody up. That's what happened."
Lupul, the seventh pick by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2002 NHL Draft, was well on his way to an all-star selection last season when the shoulder injury brought an abrupt end to his year. It would not be a stretch to suggest he was the best left wing in the NHL at the time of his injury, and he's working to get back to that level.
"I probably didn't expect this sort of start stats-wise, but I did put in a lot of work during the six weeks was out," said Lupul, who has six goals and an assist in four games since March 16. "I did a lot of extra work on my skating, and that's what feels different in my game now. I feel faster and my conditioning is pretty good."
The Maple Leafs vowed in the morning to come out strong against the inexperienced visitors, but did anything but. In fact, Toronto looked lethargic through the opening 20 minutes.
With Maple Leafs defensive pair Cody Franson and Mark Fraser backing in a little too deep, allowing the Panthers the opportunity to rush the net, Florida left wing Tomas Fleischmann scored his seventh goal of the season on a 25-foot floater that found its way between the legs of Fraser and goaltender Ben Scrivens 6:39 into the game.
Though the Maple Leafs continued to struggle early in the second period, things started to look up when Mikhail Grabovski took off alone with the puck from his own blue line. Alas, he started to lose the puck as he crossed center, then stumbled and fell at the Florida blue line to a sea of groans from the frustrated locals in the stands.
Things took a turn for the better a few minutes later when Phaneuf scored his sixth of the season on a blast from the right point that found the far corner of the net. Phaneuf actually wound up to shoot, but delayed for a second, causing Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom to drop. Seeing this, the Maple Leafs captain took aim at the far side of the goal and hit his target at 9:41.
Toronto appeared to get a lift from the goal, and shortly afterward, Lupul drove hard to the net but failed to tip a pass behind Markstrom. The Maple Leafs continued to hold a territorial edge, but the Panthers served notice they weren't about to lay down when defenseman Erik Gudbranson showed great determination skating back hard to poke the puck away from Toronto's James van Riemsdyk, who was driving hard to the net with just under three minutes remaining. That was shortly after Panthers defender Brian Campbell forced Scrivens to make a toe save on a well-placed slap shot from the left point.
With Florida's Filip Kuba serving a tripping penalty to start the third period, Lupul, Kessel and Bozak clicked on the power play 22 seconds in. Kessel made a deft cross-ice pass to Bozak, who in turn spotted Lupul driving the net. The puck got to the speedy wing, who simply redirected it past Markstrom.
The Panthers came right back with a goal 33 seconds later when Shawn Matthias flew past startled defenseman Jake Gardiner, cut to the net and sneaked one past Scrivens. Less than three minutes later, Lupul scored his sixth in seven games with Kessel and Bozak again assisting.
Carlyle, asked what he saw from his team that prompted him to change his lines, said, "I was seeing nothing, so it made it easy to make the changes. We didn't have a lot going and we were a step-and-a-half behind. We just weren't going. We were fortunate enough that after we made the change, we scored right away."
There was some concern initially that Carlyle and Lupul wouldn't get along based on their experience together in Anaheim, but that has not been the case. The coach, for his part, said the Ducks made a big mistake with Lupul before trading him to the Edmonton Oilers to acquire star defenseman Chris Pronger.
Carlyle said he did not feel back then that Lupul had the potential to take his game to its current level.
"The biggest mistake we made in Anaheim -- and we accept full responsibility for it -- was not putting him at left wing," Carlyle said. "He came to Toronto and was put on the left side and he has become a dynamic player."
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