Toronto Maple Leafs Alexei Ponikarovsky (right) slips the puck past Florida Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun ((left) to score his side\'s third goal as defenceman Jason Garrison (centre) looks on during second period action of the NHL game in Toronto on Tuesday January 5, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
TORONTO - The battle is already on for the teams that have dug themselves a hole in the NHL standings.
Witness Toronto's 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. The 14th-place Maple Leafs had to erase a two-goal deficit and hold on during a frantic final few minutes around goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, but were left with less than hour to celebrate the victory before heading to the airport.
"That was a big game, but it was just another game," said Leafs forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, who scored the eventual winner in the second period. "It's going to be a battle until the end."
It was the first of four games in five days for Toronto - as busy a stretch as an NHL team ever faces. The Maple Leafs visit Philadelphia on Wednesday, Buffalo on Friday and return home to face Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.
The team is six points out of eighth place and still clinging to hopes of making a playoff charge in the second half. They could make some big strides with a good week.
"It's going to be a lot on our bodies," said veteran defenceman Tomas Kaberle. "We've just got to keep it simple."
The Leafs managed to get off to a winning start despite falling behind Florida 2-0 - a score they've trailed by in 21 of 43 games so far this season.
A big reason for that was Gustavsson, who made 29 saves and shut the door completely in the third period when the Panthers were pressing.
"He didn't get discouraged and he buckled down (after allowing two early goals)," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "As a coach, you're watching just to see what the goalie's reaction is and what the rest of the team's reaction is."
Lee Stempniak and Tomas Kaberle also scored for the Maple Leafs (15-19-9), who have just three wins in their last 10 games.
Bryan McCabe had both goals for Florida (17-19-7).
The former Leafs defenceman was booed whenever he touched the puck, just as he has been in other visits since being traded to Florida in September 2008. McCabe had an overtime winner here for the Panthers last season and added a little more salt to the wound with the first two goals of this game.
He wasn't bothered by the negative reception from the crowd.
"It's just another night in the office," said McCabe. "Last year was a little emotional coming back, but now it's just another team."
Stempniak got the Leafs comeback rolling on a power play when he one-timed a Kaberle pass over Tomas Vokoun at 10:13 of the first period. Kaberle, McCabe's long-time defence partner, evened the score early in the second period with a low shot through traffic that beat Vokoun between the legs.
Ponikarovsky completed the comeback at 16:51, backhanding home a rebound after teammate Nikolai Kulemin won a race to the puck. He pumped his fists after scoring for the first time in eight games.
Toronto held a 3-2 advantage heading into the third period and Gustavsson was instrumental in preserving the victory. He turned aside a dangerous chance from Michael Frolik early in the final period and got his glove on a hard Dennis Seidenberg point shot that came through traffic.
"These are the games you want to play," said Gustavsson. "Tight games when everything can happen. I didn't know that we were going to win until the last second. It was a great relief."
The rookie goaltender also got some big help as defenceman Francois Beauchemin dove to break up a 3-on-1 with under three minutes to play in regulation. Wilson pointed out that he was covering up for his own mistake.
"He made a great play after he made an absolutely boneheaded play to get us on a 3-on-1," the coach said of Beauchemin. "You shouldn't have a breakdown like that."
John Mitchell returned to the Leafs lineup after missing 20 games with a sprained MCL and his timing couldn't have been much better - centres Mikhail Grabovski (wrist) and Wayne Primeau (knee) were each injured on Saturday night in Calgary. Rickard Wallin filled the other empty roster spot.
The Leafs quickly packed up their equipment and were looking forward to Wednesday's matchup with the Flyers.
"It's going to be hard," said defenceman Francois Beauchemin. "They're desperate to get some wins."
It's only January but it's already a familiar refrain.
Notes: Toronto is now 7-1-2 against Southeast Division. ... Defenceman Mike Komisarek sat out with an undisclosed upper-body injury. ... Leafs forward Phil Kessel has just one goal in his last nine games. It's been 11 games since he had an assist. ... The Panthers recalled tough guy Steve MacIntyre and inserted him in the lineup for Nick Tarnasky. ... Former Leaf Dominic Moore also suited up for Florida. ... Toronto's Jamal Mayers recorded his 100th career assist. ... Announced attendance was 18,984.