TORONTO - Nik Antropov scored the winner and Vesa Toskala was the game's first star but Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Paul Maurice saluted the 19,349 fans at Air Canada Centre for a big assist in Thursday night's 3-2 comeback win over the Florida Panthers.
Down 2-0 after the opening period, Maurice says a "Go Leafs Go" chant got his team going and relaxed his players on the bench. "I really felt they had an impact on the game," Maurice said.
He was worried how the crowd would react after a week in which Bryan McCabe has been under siege from fans and media. His gaffe in Monday night's overtime loss at Buffalo when he re-directed the puck into his own net in overtime added more fuel to the fans' unhappiness with the US$5.75 million-a-year blue-liner.
"I thought we were really, really tight in the first period," said Maurice. "Not complacent, but tense."
While McCabe was booed once in the first period, he changed the jeers to cheers with the tying goal and a solid effort all-around.
"He came out and played his best game of the year - defensively," said Maurice. "I think his confidence grew on the ice."
An evenly played game was settled with only 27.6 seconds to go in the third period when Antropov hammered home a rebound from the left faceoff circle after Panthers goalie Craig Anderson kicked out a fat rebound on a shot from Pavel Kubina.
"I was just in the right position at the right time," said Antropov. "We needed it, and fortunately we won."
The goal capped a bizarre sequence, once that left Panthers head coach Jacques Martin steaming. First Leafs defenceman Ian White dropped the gloves in the Florida zone and tried to entice Panthers forward Jozef Stumpel into a fight after the Slovak cross-checked him from behind near the boards. Stumpel refused to dance, all the while Florida defenceman Jay Bouwmeester broke down the ice at the other end and nearly scored on Toskala - deking out the Leafs goalie but missing the open net from an acute angle after Toskala got a piece of it with his stick.
The Leafs then skated right back down the ice and won the game on Antropov's heroics.
"Well the guy mugged our guy," Martin said of the White-Stumpel non-fight. "Last time I checked that was a penalty."
Stumpel also couldn't believe there wasn't a call.
"He dropped the gloves and I didn't," Stumpel said. "I thought we were going to get a power play. That used - that is - a penalty and suddenly it wasn't."
Jason Blake also scored for the Leafs (3-3-2) while captain Mats Sundin had two assists. Antropov also had an assist, giving him four consecutive two-point games. He now has 11 points (6-5) in eight games.
David Booth and Rostislav Olesz replied for the Panthers (3-4-0), who saw their three-game win streak snapped. Winger Nathan Horton chipped in two assists.
Toskala stopped 26 of 28 shots for his second win of the season and was solid in doing so.
The Leafs faced the opposition's backup goalie for the fourth game in a row, this time Anderson getting the nod for Florida after the Panthers scratched No. 1 man Tomas Vokoun. The Czech netminder sustained a mild ankle sprain in a 2-1 shootout win at Montreal on Tuesday night. Anderson stopped 24 of 27 shots.
Olesz opened the scoring on a Florida power play, finishing off a nifty tic-tac-toe play from Stephen Weiss and Horton at 5:59.
Booth made it 2-0 at 10:20, flipping a pass from Jay Bouwmeester over Toskala's right shoulder after McCabe failed to clear the puck.
As much as the first period belonged to Florida, Toronto owned the second.
Blake got the crowd of 19,349 at Air Canada Centre into it with a quick goal just 24 seconds into the second period to cut the lead to 2-1, rifling a shot from the side boards into a half-empty net after Anderson kicked out a fat rebound.
McCabe then tied it up 2-2 with a one-timer blast on a 5-on-3 power play at 6:49, pumping his fist after beating Anderson glove side.
The crowd was on its feet for a tilt between Horton and Hal Gill, the Panthers star holding his own with the big Leafs defenceman.
Both teams were 1-for-5 on the power play.
Notes: Leafs winger Alexei Ponikarovsky returned after missing three games with an ankle injury sustained at practice last week. Forward Boyd Devereaux (back) did not play ... Panthers captain Olli Jokinen set a franchise record with his 301st consecutive game, passing Robert Svehla. Jokinen hasn't sat out since the flu made him miss a game in December 2002. Jokinen also remains one goal and one point short of passing Scott Mellanby for most (157 goals, 355 points) in franchise history ... The Panthers wrap up their Eastern Canadian road trip Saturday at Ottawa while the Leafs host Chicago the same night.