SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Vincent Trochek’s return gave the Florida Panthers the spark they desperately needed.
Mike Matheson scored the winning goal and Trocheck had an assist on the play to help the Panthers snap a seven-game losing streak by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 on Friday night.
Trocheck returned to the Panthers’ lineup after missing 27 games with a broken ankle suffered on Nov. 19 against Ottawa.
“It was awesome. Never felt better,” Trocheck said. “Just thankful that I’m able to come back and play hockey again. It’s been a long time coming.”
Trocheck was scheduled to come back after the All-Star break but the 27-year-old was having none of that, apparently demanding to return as early as possible.
“I don’t know. I’ve been pushing for a while,” Trocheck said. “The day it happened I gave Dave (DiNapoli, the team trainer) a date. I said Jan. 21st is my date that I was going to come back.” After Thursday’s practice the team decided to make the move.
Mike Hoffman and Frank Vatrano also scored for Florida. Roberto Luongo made 20 saves and Luongo moved within four wins of tying Ed Belfour (484) for third place on the NHL’s all-time wins list.
“It’s a huge boost for our club,” Luongo said of having Trocheck back. “We didn’t think he was going to play, but just having him at practice yesterday, it really got the boys jacked up. It was nice to see him in the lineup and contributing.
The Panthers took a 2-1 lead when Trocheck passed to Matheson at the point and he one-timed a shot that beat Sparks with 5:01 left in the first.
“It was a great play by Troch to have the awareness to stop up and put it on a tee for me,” Matheson said.
Ron Hainsey scored for the Maple Leafs have lost six of their last nine. Garret Sparks stopped 26 shots in his first start since Dec. 29th.
“I’m just happy to get back in the net,” Sparks said. “I just wanted to show up tonight and give us a chance to win. I wasn’t able to make that extra save tonight but moving forward these are games I feel I can win.”
The Leafs were in the second of back-to-back games, coming off a 4-2 win at NHL-leading Tampa Bay on Thursday night. Florida had not played since a 5-1 loss at Montreal on Tuesday.
“I thought they were better than us at the start. It took us a while to get our legs going,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “Now with Trocheck and Bjugstad (who returned last Sunday) back they’ve got a good team here. We knew it was going to be hard coming in and we would have liked to have been better.”
Vatrano’s empty-net goal with 1:49 left capped the scoring.
“I think we’re starting to turn the corner,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “We have a long way to go but tonight was 20 guys doing their job and everybody contributing.”
The Leafs jumped out to a 1-0 lead on Hainsey’s goal 1:49 in. Hainsey took a pass from Morgan Rielly at the blue line and fired the puck through traffic past Luongo.
The Panthers tied it 1-all on Hoffman’s team-leading 23rd goal. Keith Yandle took a shot from the blue line and Hoffman redirected the puck past Sparks at 9:02 of the first.
NOTES: Panthers D Josh Brown made his NHL debut. “You dream about that moment all your life. I’m just happy we got the win.” … D MacKenzie Weegar has been placed on injured reserve. … Forward Juho Lammikko has been loaned to AHL Springfield.
Maple Leafs: Host Arizona on Sunday.
Panthers: Visit Nashville on Saturday.
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