TORONTO - Bryan McCabe keeps finding new ways to get under the skin of Toronto Maple Leafs fans.
It wasn't enough for him to simply play another game against his former team and get booed every time he touched the puck on Tuesday. McCabe also made an encore appearance as the game's first star after scoring the overtime winner in a 4-3 comeback victory for the Florida Panthers. Showing a sense of humour, he gave a hearty wave to the Air Canada Centre crowd and tossed his stick over the glass after being named first star.
Again, the boos came down.
"There was some mixed reviews in the star selection," he said with a laugh.
The goal couldn't have been much bigger for a Florida team that is currently right on the playoff bubble in the Eastern Conference.
After the Panthers erased a 3-1 deficit in the third period, McCabe raced up the left wing in overtime and had his slapshot trickle through Vesa Toskala and just over the goal-line. His teammates raced off the bench and mobbed him like he'd just clinched a playoff series.
"I was just thinking hit the net - don't miss or else they're going the other way," said McCabe. "I got lucky, you know? I'll take it."
Toskala felt certain he was going to stop the shot.
"It just snuck through under my arm," he said. "I thought I was in a good position and ready to make a save, but it just went through."
It kept the Maple Leafs from registering back-to-back wins at home for the first time all season.
They didn't trail at any point all evening and managed to stay out of the penalty box until Alexei Ponikarovsky was called for boarding with 1:25 left in the third period. The Panthers were trailing 3-2 at that point and promptly pulled goalie Craig Anderson, giving them a 6-on-4 advantage when Cory Stillman tied the score with 52.7 seconds left in the frame.
Just like that, victory was snatched from the home team.
"We did enough things to have won the game," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "But unfortunately we didn't."
Gregory Campbell and Stephen Weiss also had goals for Florida (24-18-8), which is 8-2-4 since Jan. 1.
Ponikarovsky, Niklas Hagman and Nik Antropov replied for Toronto (19-23-9).
It was the kind of night fans of the Maple Leafs should expect during a rebuilding year, but this loss might have stung just a little because it featured McCabe as the overtime hero. He became a favourite whipping boy for Toronto fans before getting traded away last summer.
McCabe's goal on Tuesday actually made it two seasons in a row that he has put a puck in the Leafs net in overtime - unfortunately, he was still playing for the team when it happened in Buffalo last year.
Needless to say, this one felt a lot better.
"I've always said that I have a lot of great memories in this rink, a fond eight years that I'll never forget," said McCabe. "To get a goal like that against my old team in my last game here this year means a lot."
The Maple Leafs spent most of the game looking poised for a third straight win.
Hagman opened the scoring with a highlight-reel goal that was all about determination. He slipped the puck between Nathan Horton's legs, outmuscled Jassen Cullimore to work his way in front of the net and swept it around Anderson at 10:52 of the first period.
"To be honest, I thought I lost it a couple times so I would call it a little bit of luck," he said.
It was the 14th goal of the season for Hagman.
The Panthers briefly tied the game when Campbell knocked a rebound behind Toskala at 18:53, but Ponikarovsky soon restored the advantage. He buried a rebound with less than 20 seconds to play in the frame after Jason Blake had a wraparound attempt stopped.
Antropov gave the Leafs even more breathing room early in the second period. Anderson let a huge rebound out on Anton Stralman's shot before Antropov scored at 2:11.
The 3-1 lead is the same one the Leafs built in Saturday's win over Pittsburgh, but this one was headed for a different ending.
"Our guys are relentless," said Anderson. "We're a resilient group."
Weiss cut into Toronto's lead 2:21 into the third period after taking a great cross-ice pass from Stillman, the man who ended up tying it 3-3 by lifting a rebound over Toskala late.
That set the stage for McCabe's winner and the pileup of Panthers that followed.
"That's an emotional game and a big two points for us," said Weiss. "I think some of the celebrating had to do with (the guy) who scored the goal."
Fans of the Maple Leafs didn't need to be reminded.
Notes: Toronto plays at Buffalo on Wednesday night. ... Blake and Dominic Moore each extended their point streaks to five games. ... Leafs defenceman Mike Van Ryn played his first game against the Panthers since they traded him over the summer. ... Ryan Hollweg was scratched from Toronto's lineup for the ninth straight game. ... Announced attendance was 19,095.