TORONTO – Moments after the first fight of his NHL career, Matt Stajan found himself in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room trying to explain why his team had played with absolutely no fight at all.
But what could he really say? Coming off a win over Eastern Conference-leading Ottawa, the Maple Leafs were beaten 8-0 by the Florida Panthers on Tuesday in what must have been the worst game played at Air Canada Centre all season.
“We can’t roll over like that in any game,” said Stajan, who fought Ruslan Salei in the third period. “It’s embarrassing to lose like that on home ice. We know that in this room.
“We better come out next game (Thursday at Montreal) and show that this isn’t going to happen. We’re a better team than that.”
It was the largest losing margin for a Toronto team that remains a distant eight points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The hawks are already circling. The game was again played before scouts from more than a dozen NHL teams even though there’s still three weeks remaining until the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
It’s reasonable to expect that interim GM Cliff Fletcher will be busy during that period but the players aren’t concerning themselves with talk like that.
“Our job’s to come out here and work hard and try and win every hockey game,” said Stajan. “It’s the people above us that are making decisions on what to do with the team.”
Richard Zednik score three goals for Florida while Tomas Vokoun made 24 saves in what was the biggest margin of victory in the Panthers 15-year history.
Nathan Horton, Olli Jokinen, Cory Murphy, Steve Montador and Brett McLean also had goals for Florida (25-25-5). It was the team’s third straight victory.
“The coaches really stressed to keep going and not let them back into the game,” said McLean. “We’ve had a couple games this year where we have had leads in the second and third periods and we have let teams creep back in, so we really wanted to keep our foot on the gas pedal and we obviously did that.”
The sellout crowd at Air Canada Centre couldn’t even bring itself to boo another completely listless performance by the Maple Leafs on home ice.
Instead, they saved their loudest cheer for McLean’s goal to make it 8-0 Panthers at 17:06 of the third period.
“That was clearly worse than booing,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice.
This one got away from the Maple Leafs when the puck was dropped in the second period.
Horton scored just 10 seconds in after taking a nice pass from David Booth to make it 2-0. Leafs forward Kyle Wellwood turned the puck over to start the rush that led to the goal and only saw two shifts the rest of the night.
Jokinen and Murphy extended the lead to 4-0 before the game’s midway point and a timeout by Maurice and goalie change wasn’t anywhere near enough to turn things around.
“The second period we just got our confidence checked and it wasn’t there,” said Leafs defenceman Hal Gill. “We just started doing things that we can’t do as a team to win and they took advantage of it.
“I hate when it snowballs like that, but that’s what happened.”
Toronto has had several lopsided losses at home – 7-1 to both Carolina and Washington in October, 6-1 to the New York Rangers in December – but this one hurt more because of the timing.
The team had been playing better of late and the players continued to claim that they could make a playoff push. Beating the Panthers would have helped their cause as Florida is one of the teams just ahead in the standings.
“This was a big game,” said Stajan. “We know if we win this game, we leap a few teams in the standings. We didn’t do the job, we didn’t get any points.”
Maurice laid the loss at the feet of his top players, many of whom saw their ice time cut back as the game got out of hand.
Fourth-line grinders Wade Belak, Kris Newbury and Ben Ondrus found themselves on the ice more than they probably expected to and actually generated a couple scoring chances.
But the Leafs were already long done by then, showing little emotion in the third period outside of Stajan’s fight and a late scrap between Ondrus and Tanner Glass.
“I think right now we’re a little bit shell-shocked,” said Gill.
Notes: Jokinen’s goal was the 200th of his career … Mats Sundin remains stuck on 1,299 career points … Toronto was without Bryan McCabe (hand), Nik Antropov (suspension), Alex Steen (shoulder), Alexei Ponikarovsky (shoulder), Chad Kilger (personal reasons), Mark Bell (face) and John Pohl (ankle) … The Panthers are also banged up. They were missing Jozef Stumpel (shoulder), Mike Van Ryn (wrist), Noah Welch (shoulder), Rostislav Olesz (hand), Ville Peltonen (foot) and Garth Murray (shoulder).