TORONTO - Playing the second half of back-to-back games, the Toronto Maple Leafs refused to use fatigue as an excuse.
Coach Randy Carlyle noticed his players were tired and how much that played a role in a 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre. But inside the locker room the talk was much more about a lack of execution.
"There's never an excuse: Injuries, tired, it's all B.S.," goaltender James Reimer said. "Those are all excuses. They're useless."
Winger Mason Raymond, who scored Toronto's only goal, scoffed that he and his teammates "simply got embarrassed." They committed turnovers that led to all three Panthers goals and were never really able to keep up.
"I echo those remarks as something that we cannot be proud of our performance tonight," Carlyle said after the Leafs (17-16-3) lost for the fifth time in their past six games.
Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes scored for the Panthers (13-17-5), who won their fourth straight and sixth in their past seven games. With the victory, Florida crept to within six points of Toronto for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
"We're looking for progress," coach Peter Horacek said. "We're looking for consistency in our play."
The Panthers certainly showed more consistency Tuesday than the Leafs, who couldn't get much of an attack going until the third period when Raymond's goal broke up Scott Clemmensen's shutout and cut the deficit to two goals.
Before that, Carlyle bemoaned his team being on the wrong end of far too many 50/50 puck battles. It didn't matter that the Panthers have the lowest payroll in the NHL because they didn't look like it.
Toronto's lacklustre play helped.
"We just didn't play well enough. That's the bottom line," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We take pride in being a team that doesn't get outworked. Tonight we were outworked."
Couple that with mistakes at inopportune times and the result was the Leafs' 12th loss in 18 games at Air Canada Centre this season. Each of Florida's goals came as a result of a noticeable turnover.
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.
"We had clear-cut possession of the puck, won a faceoff, it goes back to (Gardiner), they end up with a breakaway out of it," Carlyle said. "It's pretty hard to defend a player in that position, and I told him so. You've got to expect to have a higher level of execution than that in that situation."
Boos predictably followed, and then continued when 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.
"I made some mistakes tonight that are unacceptable," Phaneuf said. "Take responsibility for it."
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.
"I thought we got a little life after that," Raymond said. "We played some better hockey then."
Aided by that third-period onslaught, Toronto outshot Florida 29-23, but Carlyle didn't like the lack of second opportunities.
"I classified our game as we tried to plan shinny against an NHL hockey club tonight," he said.
Clemmensen, who made 28 saves for the victory, was hardly stressed for most of the game. The veteran netminder acknowledged, as did Horachek and other Panthers players, that the Leafs were tired.
But it was incumbent on the visitors to take advantage of that.
"We were hoping to have a little bit more energy than they had," Clemmensen said. "Fortunately for us, we kept them off the board until the third period. That, in turn, kept the crowd out of it. That was big."
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.
As for the Leafs, the frustrating is growing bigger amid losses. And with the excuses thrown out, answers are also lacking.
"Everyone is trying to turn it around," centre Jay McClement said. "It seems like we need all of us to step up and take the reins and change things. But it seems like we're waiting too long to do that."
NOTES—Centre Trevor Smith broke a bone in his right hand when blocking a shot from the Panthers' Shawn Matthias in the third period, Carlyle said. Smith has four goals and five assists in 24 games this season. ... Last year's Calder Trophy winner, Jonathan Huberdeau, missed his second straight game with a foot injury. Horachek said the Saint-Jerome, Que., native could have played and is hopefully on target to be in the lineup Thursday when Florida visits the Ottawa Senators.
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