TORONTO – Another season is slipping away from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Chants of "Fire Wilson!" echoed through Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night as the Florida Panthers put the finishing touches on a 5-3 win over the sinking Maple Leafs, an all-too-familiar outcome for frustrated fans in Toronto. It was the ninth loss in 10 games for a team general manager Brian Burke decided against tinkering with ahead of Monday's trade deadline.
Even coach Ron Wilson couldn't blame the fans for calling for his job.
"It's frustrating, but understandable," he said. "We didn't do anything at the trade deadline and we came out tentative to say the least. We talked ad nauseum to the team about the (last) 20 games and finding our focus and we weren't ready to start the game."
That was painfully evident with the score 1-0 just 13 seconds in. Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn let the puck slip off his stick right after the opening faceoff — "I messed up there pretty bad," he said later — before Marcel Goc one-timed a shot past James Reimer.
The hole got bigger two minutes later when Mike Santorelli finished off a 2-on-1 and put the Leafs behind 2-0 for the fifth straight game.
"We're embarrassed to go out there and play like that in front of our home fans," said Schenn.
Toronto owns the NHL's second-longest playoff drought at seven years — behind only the Panthers — and Florida is currently in position to end its run of futility by leading the Southeast Division. There was no disguising the importance of Tuesday's game for either franchise and the visitors earned full marks for the victory.
Santorelli finished with two goals while Goc, Jason Garrison and Stephen Weiss each added one for Florida. Jose Theodore finished with 28 saves.
"Look at how close the standings are, every point is so important," said Santorelli. "This was a big win for us."
"When you've got a history as an organization (of not making the playoffs), you've got to acknowledge that," said Kevin Dineen, a rookie coach in the NHL. "It makes it that much more special that we're in the playoff race this season."
Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin and Joffrey Lupul replied for the Maple Leafs, who sit just four points out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference despite going 1-8-1 since Feb. 7.
Burke and Wilson were each hopeful that the passing of the trade deadline would ease some of the burden on the group. There was no evidence of that against Florida.
"It was a tough month for guys in our room. That's not an excuse, that's the reality of playing in big market like Toronto," said captain Dion Phaneuf. "There's a lot of media coverage, there's a lot of rumors and as a group a lot of guys had a lot more stress than they probably needed."
This one was particularly difficult for Reimer, the embattled goaltender who couldn't really be faulted for the shoddy play in front of him. His first save of the game came almost 11 minutes in — he was cheered sarcastically — as the Panthers looked set on protecting the early advantage.
"Earlier in the game, we didn't do anything to help him," said Wilson.
Toronto briefly had some life after Kessel scored his 32nd goal of the season midway through the second period, but Clarke MacArthur was sent off for a penalty soon after and Santorelli converted a rebound to make it 3-1.
"It's a lot of fun playing meaningful games at this time of year," said Weiss, who's been a Panthers regular since 2002.
"That's what hockey is all about ... especially with all the new guys and the way we've come together and play hard for each other. It's great."
The mood turned ugly for the Leafs after Garrison scored his 14th of the season at 4:38 of the third period to extend the advantage. That set off the first round of chants calling for Wilson's job, something two local columnists have put in print recently. Burke tried to quell that talk with a vote of confidence for his coach on Monday, but it clearly didn't soothe the paying customers.
"Every guy is embarrassed, it's tough to go through a game like that," said Schenn. "Whether you're not getting the bounces or the breaks or things just aren't clicking, you can make any excuse you want but it's definitely not fun right now."
The Wilson chants were renewed after Kulemin and Weiss traded goals 61 seconds apart and only subsided in the waning minutes because fans cleared out of the building en masse. The Leafs had little time to recuperate with a game in Chicago on Wednesday night.
They desperately need to do something to turn the tide.
"Yeah, you do get exasperated and you get frustrated," said Wilson. "But tomorrow's a new day, the sun will probably come up and we've got to pull up our bootstraps and get going."
Notes: Wilson coached his 1,400th career NHL game, tying him with Pat Quinn for fourth on the all-time list ... The Panthers were missing leading scorer Kris Versteeg to a lower-body injury ... Toronto scratched Colby Armstrong and Cody Franson ... Florida is 11-2-2 against Canadian teams this season. It visits Winnipeg on Thursday.