Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Nik Antropov (left) and Florida Panthers left winger David Booth (10) battle for position during second period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday, January 6, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
TORONTO - The evening started with fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs booing former whipping boy Bryan McCabe. It wasn't long before those taunts were turned on the home team.
McCabe wasn't much of a factor in his return to the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday, although he did collect an assist to help the Florida Panthers soundly beat Toronto 4-2.
The Maple Leafs inadvertently did McCabe a favour by coming out flat in the first period. The team's poor play drew the focus away from the favourite target of disgruntled Leafs fans.
"The boos weren't too bad out there," said McCabe. "I got it much worse when I played here. It was fine."
The Panthers got a quick jump on their opponents, registering 10 shots on goal in the first five minutes of the game before eventually building a 3-0 lead after two periods. That prompted a sellout crowd of 19,197 to loudly jeer the Maple Leafs as the second intermission began.
It's something that hasn't happened a whole lot this season.
There weren't many smiles to be found in Toronto's dressing room after the game, but the best assessment of what went wrong came from McCabe, who spent eight years in the city before getting traded to Florida over the summer.
"They were really flat," he said. "We really outplayed them, got up a couple, and we really didn't look back from there. It was a good game."
The last thing the Leafs were left worrying about was a visit by a former teammate.
As the team prepares to head off on a short two-game road trip starting Thursday in Montreal, it's very clear that they've got some consistency issues to deal with. Emotional wins have been followed by lacklustre losses too often during the past month or two.
They looked like the shell of the team that rallied to beat Ottawa three nights earlier.
"I was not very happy with the effort," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "We had zero energy at all from any veteran players, to show up and lead the way. It was a quiet room before the game, it was quiet on the bench. ...
"We've got to find a way to get a little bit more passion or energy when we play a team like that."
That kind of tough talk is something Wilson has done with regularity since arriving in Toronto over the summer. However, it will be interesting to see how his words start translating into action from GM Brian Burke as the trade deadline gets closer and closer.
The coach mentioned one of his needs in the wake of Tuesday's loss.
"We're so passive in the first period," said Wilson. "Again, we don't have a take charge type of player on our team right now. It will show in the first period."
Stephen Weiss, Ville Peltonen, Michael Frolik and Gregory Campbell had goals for Florida (18-16-6).
Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jason Blake replied for the Maple Leafs (16-18-6). Vesa Toskala made 30 saves and was sharp in a losing cause.
McCabe was the target of the boos early on, but Weiss helped him answer the critics in the stands. The Panthers forward beat Toskala with a high wrist shot at 10:16 of the first period, earning McCabe an assist - his 19th point in 30 games this year.
This game has been circled on his calendar since August and was one that all of the Panthers have been looking forward to.
"The guys around here have been booing him to get him prepared, kind of getting him immune to it for the last two days," said Florida coach Peter DeBoer. "I've got all the respect in the world for Bryan McCabe. I think he's handled the situation like a consummate professional and I can't say enough. And that's from a guy who watched it going on from up the road in Kitchener last year.
"I can't imagine anyone would handle the situation better than he has."
The Panthers earned five of six available points to conclude their road trip and returned to South Florida after the game. They're only four points ahead of the Leafs in the standings but expect to make a playoff push down the stretch.
Outside of the Leafs dressing room, there aren't many in Toronto who expect the same here. Even most of the team's fans seem to be embracing the organization's pre-season plea for patience.
That's why a visit from a vilified player is even more anticipated than usual. It didn't work out for the home crowd this time, but McCabe and the Panthers will be back again on Feb. 3.
Expect to hear more boos then.
"It's a normal reaction," said Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle. "Every player gets it when he plays somewhere else, it's not only in Toronto. I think it's a good reaction.
"This is the home team and we need the crowd behind us. Obviously we didn't get the result done."
Notes: World junior gold medallists Cody Hodgson and Cody Goloubef were given a loud ovation before the game ... Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun made 24 saves and registered his 200th career win ... Florida's David Booth assisted on the first goal to extend his points streak to six games ... Toronto forward John Mitchell had two assists ... Leafs executive Joe Nieuwendyk played for both teams and worked in Florida's front office after retiring.