TORONTO – Pete DeBoer can’t help but wonder what might have been.
After watching David Booth register his first two-goal game of the season in a 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, the Florida Panthers coach acknowledged that he often thinks about how different this season would have turned out had Booth and Nathan Horton been healthy all year.
“There’s no doubt that those two guys are world-class players, they change the face of our team when they’re in the lineup,” said DeBoer. “We don’t have the depth to overcome the loss of those guys for significant time periods. You absolutely wonder what could have been, absolutely.”
Booth is just now finding his stride after missing 45 games to the concussion he suffered on a controversial hit by Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards – the collision that essentially started the head shots debate. The injury kept Booth from exercising for two months and cost him a chance at playing for the U.S. at the recent Olympics.
The 25-year-old seems to be regaining the form that saw him score 31 goals last season. Rather than resting during last month’s Olympic break, he spent the time improving his fitness.
“It’s hard to come back from two months of not doing anything and then try to skate and play,” said Booth. “That two weeks was huge. I got some games in before the break and then we came back and I’m feeling a bit better out there.”
Hornton played his fourth game after missing more than a month with a leg injury, but didn’t factor into the win over Toronto.
Florida finds itself in a familiar position with just 10 games to play in the regular season – chasing a playoff spot. The Panthers are currently seven points back of eighth-place Boston.
“We have to win all of our games,” said captain Bryan McCabe. “I thought we played really solid tonight, got some great goaltending.”
Panthers goalie Scott Clemmenson came within three minutes of registering his first shutout of the season, but still finished with 42 saves.
Michael Frolik and Jason Garrison also scored for Florida (30-31-11), which became the first visiting team to leave Air Canada Centre with a victory since March 2.
Fredrik Sjostrom replied for the Maple Leafs (26-35-12).
Toronto entered with wins in six of its last seven games and was hoping to move closer to getting out of the basement in the Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs remain four points back of 14th place.
“We had some good moments in this game, for sure, but we also had a few lapses and kind of gave them their goals,” said Sjostrom. “It was a little step back for us tonight. We’ve been playing good in the previous games, so it’s definitely a tough loss for us.”
Clemmensen poke-checked the puck off Phil Kessel’s stick on an early breakaway and stymied the Leafs on a couple other chances to keep it scoreless early.
Booth made it 1-0 by taking advantage of an error by Luke Schenn. He knocking the puck off the defenceman’s stick before beating J.S. Giguere high to the glove at 11:30 of the first period.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson thinks that was a back-breaker.
“Their first goal, we’re in a situation where we shouldn’t turn the puck over right there and we did and you’re down 1-0 just like that when you’re controlling the tempo and the pace of the game,” said Wilson. “And we just didn’t respond, it’s simple.”
Booth extended the Panthers lead to 2-0 early in the third period by tipping McCabe’s point shot behind Giguere, essentially ending any hope the Leafs had of extending their home winning streak to six games.
The Panthers are in the midst of an important road trip that will see them visit Montreal on Thursday and Ottawa on Saturday. The franchise owns the NHL’s longest current playoff drought and is likely to see its streak hit 10 years this spring.
DeBoer is hoping for better luck next year.
“Injuries happen to everybody and you can’t lose sleep over it,” he said. “We’ll just have to cross our fingers that we won’t have to deal with a season like that again.”
Notes: Giguere finished with 25 saves … Luca Caputi returned to the Leafs lineup after missing Saturday’s game because of sickness. … Toronto scratched Wayne Primeau and Jeff Finger. … Gregory Campbell (foot) missed the game for the Panthers. … Only one player remains on Toronto’s roster from when McCabe played here – Tomas Kaberle. … Announced attendance was 19,158.