TORONTO – Playing the percentages is a coaching approach more akin to baseball than hockey, but Ron Wilson and the Toronto Maple Leafs successfully employed the strategy Tuesday night.
Operating off numbers that show goaltender Scott Clemmensen enjoys more success against left-handed penalty shooters than right-handed attackers, Wilson stacked his shootout lineup with righties in a 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers.
After Kris Versteeg was stopped, Tyler Bozak and Colby Armstrong both scored to secure the victory in a contest featuring two Eastern Conference also-rans.
David Booth, on a nice spin move, was the only Panther to score in the shootout against Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who then stopped Mike Santorelli and Chris Higgins to decide things.
“We were going to win it or lose it with righties tonight,” Wilson said of his approach to the shootout.
“If (Tomas) Vokoun’s in (goal for Florida), he has trouble with lefties, he saves like 90 per cent of the righties and lefties score like 60 per cent of the time on him. If you have the (numbers) available, use them.”
The Maple Leafs were forced to dig into their stats pack after letting a 3-2 lead slip away late in regulation when a Phil Kessel elbowing penalty with 4:15 left set up a Panthers power play.
Cory Stillman tied it 34 seconds later by redirecting Dmitry Kulikov’s point shot past Giguere, leading to an exciting overtime that didn’t settle matters.
Kessel made a dynamite move at the blue-line for a breakaway in the dying seconds but couldn’t beat Clemmensen, extending his goal drought to eight games.
Still, the man picked last in the all-star draft before going pointless in the showcase affair delivered a pretty solid effort with several scoring chances and five shots on goal.
“I thought he was buzzing,” said teammate Clarke MacArthur. “He had a lot of shots, they just didn’t go in for him.”
Versteeg, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski scored in regulation for the Maple Leafs (20-25-5), who ended a three-game losing streak and won for just the second time in eight outings.
Stephen Weiss and Booth also scored in regulation for the Panthers (22-22-6), who have won just once in their last seven games. Florida is 11th in the Eastern Conference, now five points ahead of Toronto.
“You’re never happy with one point,” said Panthers coach Peter DeBoer, “but it was probably a fair outcome.”
Giguere was a big reason for that with 30 saves in regulation, many of them on odd-man rushes.
The veteran has been the subject of trade speculation, and with rookie James Reimer pushing for playing time, Wilson has a decision to make on whether to ride Giguere or not.
“I’m not really sure,” Wilson said of his plans. “James Reimer has played so well every game, he hasn’t had a bad game yet. I’m still thinking of getting games in for Reims, too. We’ll just go from there.”
Grabovski put the Leafs up 3-2 at 6:16 of the second when he redirected Tomas Kaberle’s point shot past Clemmensen on a power play.
The goal came just 1:22 after a careless high-sticking penalty by Jay Rosehill allowed the Panthers to tie things up at 4:54. Keaton Ellerby made a pretty cross-ice pass from the point to Michael Frolik at the side of the goal, and he centred it in front for Booth to tap in.
The Leafs led 2-1 through the fast-paced opening 20 minutes.
Versteeg opened the scoring at 7:20 with a clever goal. Standing behind the net, he picked up the rebound of a failed pass out front and banked the puck in off the backside of an unprepared Clemmensen, who was unsure where the puck had gone.
The Panthers tied it up at 18:06 when Weiss took a Chris Higgins pass on a 3-on-1 rush and beat Giguere low stick-side.
The Leafs reclaimed the lead just 23 seconds later when MacArthur dug the puck out of the corner and sent a pass to Kulemin, who wired a shot from the faceoff dot past Clemmensen’s blocker.
Leafs forward Mike Brown left the game in the second period with an upper-body injury and didn’t return. He took a heavy hit from Ellerby along the boards.
Wilson said Brown is day-to-day.
Clemmensen made 22 saves in regulation.
Notes:F Fredrik Sjostrom, D Brett Lebda and G Jonas Gustavsson were Toronto’s scratches. … Florida scratched forwards Shawn Matthias and Steve Bernier. … Panthers D Mike Weaver had to apologize to teammate Marty Reasoner after whacking a puck into the forward’s face after play had been stopped in the first period. Reasoner was no worse for the wear. … Kessel’s last goal was on Jan. 11 versus San Jose. … Panthers captain Bryan McCabe, a former Leaf, missed the game with a broken jaw. Fans still booed during pre-game introductions.