TORONTO — It’s baby steps for the Maple Leafs these days when it comes to good news. A debut here, a first NHL goal there.
But the losses continue to mount in a season gone horribly wrong.
The latest defeat — Toronto’s seventh straight — came Thursday in a 4-1 setback at the hands of the Florida Panthers.
Brandon Pirri scored twice and Robert Luongo made 24 saves as the Panthers (34-26-14) kept their slim playoff hopes alive while adding to the Leafs’ seemingly endless misery.
Toronto (27-42-6) is a shocking 6-28-3 in 2015. It hasn’t held a lead in 448 minutes 58 seconds, which is its longest drought in at least 27 years, according to Sportsnet Stats.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Steven Kampfer and Pirri scored second-period goals to put Florida in front. Pirri, with his 20th, added a late empty-netter.
Toronto showed some jump in the third and Sam Carrick scored his first NHL goal midway through the period, thanks to a beautiful Morgan Rielly rush and setup.
“It’s a dream come true,” said the 23-year-old centre, who grew up supporting the Leafs in nearby Stouffville.
Toronto’s Jonathan Bernier was given the hook with 5:26 remaining in the second period after yielding three goals on 16 shots. The Leafs No. 1 has been pulled seven times this season.
Toronto interim coach Peter Horachek said he made the change “to stop the bleeding.”
“That whole second period — the neutral zone was poor, we were porous,” said Horachek. “People were doing something that I don’t know what they were doing.”
“We can’t get a 60-minute effort,” he lamented.
That’s partly due to a watered-down, ever-changing lineup filled with youth and call-ups.
Leafs fans could be forgiven for wondering who half of the players in uniform were with centres Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland, Trevor Smith and Zach Sill all missing.
Once again there were plenty of empty seats although the crowd was announced at 18,831 which is officially a sellout (capacity is considered 18,819). Monday’s loss to Minnesota before an announced crowd of 18,366 was the second non-sellout of the season and the smallest Leafs crowd ever at the Air Canada Centre.
The Panthers are three points back of Ottawa and the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot. Florida faces the Sens on Sunday after a Saturday stop in Montreal.
The road trip ends Tuesday in Boston, which stands between the Panthers and Senators.
“Right now we’re in playoff mode,” said Luongo. “Every game is so crucial. These are moments that the younger guys are going to learn from and use going forward in their careers. At the same time, we believe in our team and we’re just going to keep plugging away and see what happens.”
The Leafs had more quality chances in the first period with Luongo having to be sharp. But Florida’s top line of Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr turned the tide in the second.
“After the first we talked about getting our pace and more north-south hockey and I thought we did a better job obviously,” said Panthers coach Gerard Gallant.
Toronto’s top line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel had 13 of the team’s 25 shots. But it was also on the ice for the first two goals against and the empty-netter.
It was game No. 1,542 for the 43-year-old Jagr, who picked up his 1,793rd career point with an assist. It was his 75th career point against Toronto.
The evening marked the debut of newly signed Penn State forward Casey Bailey. who saw 11:49 of action in 15 shifts with Joakim Lindstrom and Carrick on the Leafs’ fourth line.
“It was definitely a lot faster and the guys were bigger but I had fun out there,” said Bailey.
“Not too bad at all,” was Horachek’s assessment.
A young fan in the sixth row got Pirri’s stick as a souvenir when Richard Panik chopped it over the boards late in the game. Panik got a 10-minute misconduct for his benevolence.
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