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Panthers strike fast, hand Leafs fifth straight home loss

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The Canadian Press
2/28/2012 11:50:36 PM
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TORONTO -- Another season is slipping away from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mike Santorelli scored twice Tuesday as the Florida Panthers handed the sinking Maple Leafs a 5-3 loss, an all-too-familiar outcome for fans in Toronto.

Loud chants of "Fire Wilson!" -- directed at coach Ron Wilson -- went up twice during the third period as the Leafs lost for the ninth time in 10 games, including all four on a disheartening homestand. Toronto sits four points out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference but it is showing no signs of pulling out of a tailspin.

Marcel Goc, Jason Garrison and Stephen Weiss also scored for Florida (30-20-12). Jose Theodore added 28 saves.

Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin and Joffrey Lupul replied for the Maple Leafs (29-27-7).

A day after general manager Brian Burke expressed hope that the passing of the trade deadline would relax the Leafs, the team was felled by a familiar foe: an awful start.

Defenceman Luke Schenn let the puck slip off his stick right after the opening faceoff and Wojtek Wolski set Goc up for a goal just 13 seconds in. The hole got bigger two minutes later when Santorelli finished off a 2-on-1 with Jack Skille, setting off a round of boos at Air Canada Centre.

It was the fifth straight game the Leafs fell behind 2-0.

This one was particularly difficult for James Reimer, the embattled goaltender who couldn't really be faulted for the shoddy play in front of him. His first save of the game came almost 11 minutes in -- he was cheered sarcastically -- as the Panthers looked set on protecting the early advantage.

Toronto seemed to find its legs as the period went on and Lupul appeared to cut into the lead late in the first period. However, his goal was turned back by video review because he didn't get a stick on the puck after trying to kick it up for a shot.

Kessel ended up making it 2-1 at 10:46 of the second period. It was the 32nd goal of the season for the Leafs sniper, who beat Thoedore with a nice wrist shot on the power play.

But the Panthers found an answer on a man advantage of their own, with Santorelli knocking home his second of the night at 13:54 after Reimer coughed up a big rebound while stopping a Tomas Fleischmann shot.

The mood turned ugly after Garrison scored his 14th of the season at 4:38 of the third period to put Florida ahead 4-1. That set off the first round of chants calling for Wilson's job, something two local columnists have put in print recently.

Toronto currently owns the NHL's second-longest playoff drought at eight years -- behind only the Panthers -- and Wilson is in his fourth season with the team. Burke gave a public declaration of support for his coach while speaking to reporters after Monday's trade deadline.

The chants were renewed after Kulemin and Weiss traded goals 61 seconds apart and only subsided in the waning minutes because fans cleared out of the building en masse. Lupul scored late but there would be no comeback.

The Leafs won't have much time to recuperate with a game in Chicago on Wednesday night.

Notes:@ Wilson coached his 1,400th career NHL game, tying him with Pat Quinn for fourth on the all-time list ... The Panthers were missing leading scorer Kris Versteeg to a lower-body injury ... Toronto scratched Colby Armstrong and Cody Franson ... Florida is 11-2-2 against Canadian teams this season. It visits Winnipeg on Thursday ... Announced attendance was 19,420.



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