TORONTO — Jussi Jokinen wasn’t trying to score on either of the two goals he managed against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Jokinen’s unlikely two-goal outing helped the Panthers to a 4-1 win in Toronto on Thursday night, further solidifying their hold on the Atlantic Division lead. His goals came off two passing attempts in the second period that pinged off Toronto sticks to beat Jonathan Bernier, who had been superb in helping the Leafs to back-to-back victories earlier in the week.
“It’s too bad,” said Bernier, who stopped every one of the remaining 28 Florida shots he faced. “Two unfortunate goals that we try to make the good play, stick on puck, and it ends up in the back of the net.”
Jokinen opened the scoring 24 seconds into the middle frame, his passing attempt to Vincent Trocheck deflecting off the stick of Leafs forward Ben Smith. The 32-year-old added his second goal of the night and 15th this season about nine minutes later, his pass from behind the goal-line caroming off the stick of Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick.
Bernier had no idea where the puck was as it sailed behind him and into the goal.
“Two goals that are pretty lucky,” said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, who scored Toronto’s only goal. “I don’t think that they would argue that. But that’s just the way the game goes. They played well. They played with speed and they generated those chances.”
The Panthers added two empty-netters, including 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr’s 24th goal of the season.
Toronto was coming off solid wins over the Red Wings and Lightning, Bernier stopping 64 of 65 shots along the way.
Last in the NHL with 59 points and nearing official elimination from the post-season, the Leafs have played well despite a roster that’s full of inexperience. Eight players in Thursday’s lineup were aged 23 and under, including 22-year-old Connor Brown who was making his NHL debut.
Brown became the 10th Leaf to play his first NHL game this season. He was recalled on an emergency basis to replace Leo Komarov, who was hurt in the Leafs win over Tampa earlier this week.
A sixth-round pick of the club in 2012 and Toronto native, Brown was given the standard rookie treatment at the pre-game warm-up, left to take a couple spins around the ice before being joined by teammates.
“I tried to take a second to soak it in and it was pretty awesome,” he said of his near-16 minute debut.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has been pleased with his team’s play in recent weeks, though felt there was lesson for his young players in the loss to Florida.
“We still have to get more competitive,” Babcock said. “It doesn’t matter how much skill you have you’ve got to win your battles.”
Babcock felt his team sunk somewhat after the Panthers’ second goal.
It was the fourth win in five games for Florida (40-22-9, 89 points), trailed closely for the division lead by Boston and Tampa. Three wins from matching their franchise record (43), the Panthers are three points up on the Bruins and four points up on the Lightning with 11 games remaining this season.
Roberto Luongo was sturdy in stopping 32 of 33 shots, including a Michael Grabner breakaway in the first period.
“We’ve got some big games ahead of us so we didn’t want to overlook this one and look ahead,” Luongo said. “They’re a tough team to play against. They’re quick, they’re hungry and they play well defensively … They made us earn it tonight.”
Rielly scored when his shot from high in the slot squeaked past the future of Hall of Fame goaltender. It was Rielly’s eighth goal this season, matching a career-high, and 30th point, also setting a new career mark.
The 22-year-old played over 28 minutes, continuing to carry a heavy load for the Leafs following trades that sent Dion Phaneuf and Roman Polak elsewhere.
”He’s gaining more and more confidence,“ Babcock said of Rielly, Toronto’s scoring leader on defence. ”He’s playing better and better without the puck. Before he raced around and people noticed that, but now he plays without the puck really well.“
It was the Panthers second win in as many meetings with the Leafs this season. Florida beat Toronto 5-1 on Jan. 26.
The two teams meet twice more this season.