By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE, Fla. – Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Pirri had big nights for the Panthers in Florida’s 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at BB&T Center on Thursday night.
Bjugstad assumed the team lead in scoring with two goals and an assist while Pirri celebrated his birthday by opening the game’s scoring as the Panthers won the season series from the Maple Leafs 3-1. Florida outscored Toronto 14-10 over the four games, with the Maple Leafs’ lone win a 6-3 home victory on Jan. 30.
Bjugstad assisted on Brad Boyes’ goal as the second period came to a close to give Florida (29-44-8) a 2-1 lead. He skated around behind Toronto goalie Drew MacIntyre, making his first NHL start, and fed Boyes, who tapped in the pass for his team-high 21st goal.
Bjugstad, a University of Minnesota alum who had keen interest in the Gophers’ Frozen Four semifinal against North Dakota following the game, scored from behind MacIntyre by fending off Toronto defenseman Paul Ranger for a goal 3:23 into the third. He soon added a shorthanded marker on a pass from Tomas Fleischmann to finish off a 2-on-1 rush less than three minutes later for a 4-1 edge.
“It was a good night. Boyes and (Sean) Bergenheim are great to play with. They talk to me a lot. They’re veterans and guide me through it. They’ve been very positive with me,” said Bjugstad.
The Minnesota native said Florida’s approach was to get pucks in deep and work behind MacIntyre.
“We were doing a lot of stuff down low tonight. We had to get pucks to the net. It was the first game for that goalie. We had to get shots on him. The pass (to Boyes), I saw him on the back door,” he said.
Pirri, a Toronto native, started the scoring when he whipped a shot over MacIntyre’s glove on the high side for a 1-0 lead at 6:06 of the first period. Linemate Quinton Howden set up the score with a pass from the boards to Pirri in the left circle, and Brian Campbell collected an assist on the tally.
“I had a lot of family back home who went to a local bar (to watch), so it was cool. It was good for us to get a good start, and we played well in the first,” said Pirri, who celebrated his 23rd birthday with his 13th goal.
Pirri, acquired from Chicago, has shown the offensive flair that the Cats desperately need.
“Obviously, getting points is nice, but the team won in the end. That’s what’s important. We’re just trying to build every game and get better,” he said.
Toronto tied it when Tyler Bozak fired in a shot off a pass from Jake Gardiner for his 19th goal, beating Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo over his blocker. James Van Riemsdyk also had an assist on the play for the Leafs (38-35-8), who were eliminated from a wildcard playoff spot when Columbus won in Dallas on Wednesday night. Ranger had Toronto’s other goal.
Luongo made 27 saves to earn the win while MacIntyre faced 37 shots from Florida, who closes its season Saturday night at home against playoff-bound Columbus.
NOTES: Pirri has 13 points in 17 games…Boyes has recorded three goals in his last five games…Bjugstad now has 38 points and leads the team in scoring, eclipsing Scottie Upshall’s 37. Bjugstad, who posted the first two-goal and three-point game of his career, is tied as the fourth-highest scoring NHL rookie…By winning its 67th meeting against Toronto, Florida improved to 27-28-7-5 against the Maple Leafs…Toronto starting goaltender Drew MacIntyre was selected in the fourth round by Detroit in the 2001 NHL Draft held at BB&T Center.