Ponikarovsky nets winner for Leafs against Florida

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TORONTO (AP)—The busy Maple Leafs had very little time to celebrate a stirring comeback victory.

Alexei Ponikarovsky(notes) scored the winning goal and Jonas Gustavsson(notes) made 29 saves as Toronto rallied to beat the Florida Panthers 3-2 on Tuesday night.

Lee Stempniak(notes) and Tomas Kaberle(notes) also scored for the Maple Leafs, who have won only three of 10. Toronto began a stretch of four games in five days, and less than an hour after the win, the Maple Leafs headed to the airport.

They are ahead of only Carolina in the Eastern Conference, but closed within two points of Florida.

“That was a big game, but it was just another game,” Ponikarovsky said. “It’s going to be a battle until the end.”

The Maple Leafs will visit Philadelphia on Wednesday and Buffalo on Friday before returning home to play the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Toronto is six points out of eighth place and hopes to make a playoff charge in the second half.

They could make some strides with a good week.

“It’s going to be a lot on our bodies,” veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle said. “We’ve just got to keep it simple.”

Former Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe(notes) scored both goals for Florida.

McCabe was booed whenever he touched the puck, as he has been since being traded to Florida in September 2008. He beat the Leafs with an overtime goal last season, and then staked the Panthers to a 2-0 lead Tuesday.

McCabe sent a slap shot past Gustavsson at 5:32 and then beat him again with a low wrist shot on a power play just under 3 minutes later.

“It’s just another night in the office,” McCabe said. “Last year was a little emotional coming back, but now it’s just another team.”

It was the 21st time in 43 games Toronto trailed 2-0. Unlike previous games, this was a hole the Maple Leafs were able to overcome.

Stempniak started the comeback during a power play when he one-timed Kaberle’s pass over goalie Tomas Vokoun(notes) at 10:13. Kaberle, McCabe’s longtime defense partner, tied it early in the second period with a low shot through traffic that beat Vokoun between the legs.

Ponikarovsky completed the rally at 16:51, backhanding home a rebound after teammate Nikolai Kulemin(notes) won a race to the puck. He pumped his fists after scoring for the first time in eight games.

Gustavsson was instrumental in preserving the victory. He turned aside a dangerous chance from Michael Frolik(notes) early in the third period and got his glove on Dennis Seidenberg’s(notes) hard point shot that came through traffic.

“These are the games you want to play,” Gustavsson said. “Tight games when everything can happen. I didn’t know that we were going to win until the last second. It was a great relief.”

The rookie goalie also got help as defenseman Francois Beauchemin(notes) dived to break up a 3-on-1 rush with under 3 minutes remaining.

“He didn’t get discouraged and he buckled down,” Toronto coach Ron Wilson said of the early deficit. “As a coach, you’re watching just to see what the goalie’s reaction is and what the rest of the team’s reaction is.”

The Leafs then quickly packed up their equipment and looked forward to Wednesday’s matchup with the Flyers.

“It’s going to be hard,” Beauchemin said. “They’re desperate to get some wins.”

John Mitchell(notes) returned to the Leafs lineup after missing 20 games because of a sprained knee ligament. His timing was good as Toronto centers Mikhail Grabovski(notes) (wrist) and Wayne Primeau(notes) (knee) were injured Saturday at Calgary.

NOTES: Toronto is 7-1-2 against Southeast Division teams. … Maple Leafs D Mike Komisarek(notes) sat out due to an undisclosed upper body injury. … Leafs forward Phil Kessel(notes) just one goal in nine games, and no assists in 11. … The Panthers recalled tough guy Steve MacIntyre(notes) and put him in the lineup in place of Nick Tarnasky(notes). … Toronto’s Jamal Mayers(notes) recorded his 100th NHL assist.

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Three Stars

  Three Stars
J. Gustavsson
Jonas Gustavsson
Maple Leafs - G
Saves: 29
Save Pct.: .935
B. McCabe
Bryan McCabe
Panthers - D
Goals: 2
Assists: 0
A. Ponikarovsky
Alexei Ponikarovsky
Maple Leafs - LW
Goals: 1
Assists: 0

Goaltending

Goalie Team Shot Save
Tomas Vokoun Pit 31 28

Scoreboard

Tuesday, Jan 5