TORONTO - After another tough night for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the only thing separating Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens was the elephant in the team's dressing room—James Reimer's unused equipment.
The status of the No. 1 goaltender has suddenly taken on even more importance.
Gustavsson and Scrivens each looked dejected in the dressing room after surrendering soft goals during a 5-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. It was the second straight game the Maple Leafs were booed off the ice at Air Canada Centre.
With Reimer's return still ominously up in the air—"I really don't know (when he'll be back). I can't comment on that because I simply don't know," said coach Ron Wilson—it's going to be up to his two understudies to help right the ship starting Thursday in St. Louis.
"They've got to work hard in pratice," said Wilson. "That's their responsibility to sit there with (goalie coach Francois Allaire) and go over the games. At least we go on the road, where maybe they can relax a little bit and not worry about what's going to happen if they make a mistake.
"Tomorrow, they'll hopefully bounce back."
Tuesday's game was the eighth the Leafs had played since Reimer was hit by Habs captain Brian Gionta on Oct. 22 and left with concussion-like symptoms. It's been almost two weeks since the No. 1 goaltender was permitted to speak to the media and the team has offered no firm timetable on his return.
Toronto was initially able to get by with Gustavsson and AHL callup Scrivens, but the team has looked increasingly uncomfortable in front of that pair while being outscored 12-1 in the last two games.
It certainly hasn't helped that the offence disappeared—the team endured a scoreless streak of 137 minutes 59 seconds before Phil Kessel scored his league-leading 11th goal in the third period on Tuesday.
"Sometimes that goes hand in hand," said Wilson. "If you're not sure what's going to happen in the back, you play a little cautious."
Jose Theodore finished with 38 saves while Jack Skille, Marco Sturm, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim and Shawn Matthias scored for Florida (7-4-3), which is off to its best start since 1996-97.
Kessel replied for Toronto (9-5-1).
"We played a good game," said Theodore. "The Leafs came out hard in the first period, but we didn't get intimidated. We showed them that we were prepared to play. We got the momentum and didn't let go."
This was supposed to be the year Toronto's goaltending was finally solidified with Reimer shouldering the majority of the workload. Instead, more question marks have arisen with Reimer only making six appearances and Gustavsson seemingly unable to handle the No. 1 role in his place.
The third-year backup is now 4-4-0 with a 3.78 goals-against average and .878 save percentage. Scrivens's numbers aren't any better, but he's made just three NHL appearances.
Following Tuesday's loss, they undressed a couple feet apart—in stalls on either side of Reimer's—and were clearly disappointed.
"We've got to shore up our goaltending obviously," said Wilson.
The Leafs were looking to bounce back after being hammered 7-0 by Boston on Saturday night, but Gustavsson spotted the visitors an early lead. Skille had a wide open net for his first goal of the season at 9:45 after the Leafs goaltender slid well out of his crease.
Toronto responded with a strong start to the second period that forced Panthers coach Kevin Dineen to call a timeout.
However, the game was lost in a span of 19 seconds that saw Florida go ahead 3-0. Gustavsson was unable to handle the puck behind his net before Sturm cashed in at 16:28 and couldn't get in front of a Kopecky shot at 16:47 that appeared to deflect off the stick of teammate John-Michael Liles.
"It's just one of those nights where we don't get the bounces," said Gustavsson. "Everything just hit the post and deflects and bounced back and forth. Overall, I felt pretty good."
Fans cheered when Wilson sent Scrivens in to replace him.
The rookie had a couple good moments—stopping former Leaf Kris Versteeg on a breakaway—but wasn't happy with the goals he allowed to Bergenheim and Matthias in the third period.
Everyone around the Leafs has repeatedly preached the importance of avoiding the long losing streaks that have plagued them during six straight seasons out of the post-season. It's unclear which goaltender will get the call when Toronto tries to avoid a three-game losing streak against the Blues, who won 3-0 against Chicago on Tuesday in their first game under new coach Ken Hitchcock.
"In my mind (I know who I'll start), but I don't have to share it," said Wilson. "Why don't I just call Hitch? Does anybody have a cellphone? I'll call Hitch and tell him who's going to play.
"We'll make the decision at practice tomorrow or even the next day. I want to see how the goalies play in practice, how they rebound from this and we'll go from there."
Notes: Leafs rookie forward Matt Frattin was minus-2 through 40 minutes in his first game since being recalled from the AHL ... Cody Franson, Jay Rosehill and Colton Orr were scratched for Toronto ... Rookie defenceman Erik Gudbranson sat out a third straight game for the Panthers ... Announced attendance was 19,414.