ACC CENTER, TORONTO — A team is supposed to beat the teams beneath them in the standings, and the Hurricanes did. But they almost beat themselves, too.
The Maple Leafs had every excuse to phone this game in. Only arriving back in Toronto on Tuesday morning, the Leafs players sat on a Newark airport tarmac and then a bus for five hours each because of a snowstorm that socked in much of the northeastern United States. Yet their legs seemed to have more jump in them than the Canes' did. Carolina held leads of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, but each time the Leafs answered, usually because the Canes were standing around in their own zone as if it were a snowy bus stop.
Skinner broke the ice at the 7:34 mark with his ninth goal of the year. Like many young scorers, Skinner has a tendency to try to carry the puck through traffic, an almost impossible task at the professional level. But this kid has a rare knack for keeping the puck in play. Bodying the puck down to his skates like a soccer player, he shouldered his way into the slot in front of the goal and chopped it past Jonas Gustavsson who was screened by Tuomo Ruutu. A familiar face after playing his junior hockey in Toronto, Skinner's tally drew applause from the capacity crowd of over 19,000.
Then, the penalties began. Not two minutes after Skinner's marker, Staal cut Tyler Bozak's face with his stick, drawing a 4:00 double minor. Just after killing the front half of Staal's penalty, Joni Pitkanen inexplicably flipped the puck into the crowd and was sent off for delaying the game.
Throughout this contest, Carolina's penalty kill switched to a more aggressive strategy against the offensively challenged Leafs. After collapsing around the goal to block shots and control rebounds against the Capitals and Canadiens, the Canes killers pressured the Toronto points, forcing their slower defensemen to carry the puck down the boards rather than play catch across the top of the zone. The Leafs handled it, however, cashing in on two of their eight chances, including the 5-on-3 advantage that Pitkanen's gaffe provided.
Phil Kessel, much maligned in Toronto for his avoidance of physical play, didn't have to get his nose dirty to notch his thirteenth of the season, one-timing a diagonal pass from Tomas Kaberle from shouting distance of Ward at the top of the circle.
Eric Staal then showed why he wears the C on his jersey. Freed from the box by the Kessel goal, he made amends by crafting a goal worthy of the highlight reel to restore the lead. Wresting the puck from a knot of players along the boards, he burst out of the crowd and pulled away from their pursuit to go in on Gustavsson alone. While hooked from behind, Staal dug his skates into the ice to cut across the crease, waiting until Gustavsson went down to wrist the puck into the net. It was a display of power, speed, and skill that no Toronto player can match.
But Kessel found some luck to answer quickly. After Joey Crabb hooked Jay Harrison's stick out of his hands in the Canes' zone, the puck popped out of the corner and deflected off Harrison's fallen stick right out in front. Kessel popped it in to even the game.
Perhaps emboldened by the no-call on his hook, Crabb tied up Joe Corvo a couple of shifts later, but didn't get away with it. The late power play gave the Canes the opportunity to close out an uneven period with a lead. Ten seconds before intermission, Sergei Samsonov darted in from the right dot, freezing defenseman Mike Komisarek in front of Gustavsson before flicking a no-look pass to Staal in the slot. The captain banged in his eighteenth of the year to put Carolina up 3-2 at the break. Crabb's penalty had just two seconds left when Staal scored.
After a period of skating and passing, the action in the second frame shifted into the corners. Toronto exerted control and the Canes held on for dear life, taking three straight penalties and leaving Ward to his own devices repeatedly. With Jamie McBain in the box, Mikhail Grabovski found a rebound of a Kaberle point shot that Kris Versteeg tipped. Grabovski shoved it in to even matters, but that was all Ward would yield.
On a man-advantage rush a minute later, Versteeg was stoned on a breakaway by Ward, who recovered enough in the subsequent scramble to force Grabovski to put an uncontested shot off the near post. Tim Gleason saved a goal in a late sequence by tumbling in front of an open shot while Ward was on his back. The Canes stopper wrapped up the period by gloving a sparkling wrist shot from Kessel with a minute left.
Whistles again abounded in the third period, as both teams clutched and grabbed each other to try to get the win. One whistle took a possible go-ahead goal away from Toronto. After a scramble, Ward, thinking the puck was in his glove, relaxed. But the puck was under his pad. It squirted out and was chipped into the goal. However, the official also thought Ward gloved the puck, and blew the play dead just before the puck went in: no goal.
Near goals by Zach Boychuk, who sent the disk parallel to the goal line behind Gustavsson on a power play, and Tuomo Ruutu, who skated across the crease similarly to Staal's first goal but was robbed by the shoulder of a swimming Gustavsson, ratcheted up the pressure on the home squad. The Canes cashed in with barely five minutes left, showing a willingness to sacrifice to win.
Upright and vulnerable, Brandon Sutter moved the puck out of the corner to Boychuk just as he was mashed into the boards by an oncoming check. Boychuk also waited until the last second, absorbing a vicious check, before moving the puck to Gleason at the point. Gleason uncorked a heavy slap shot that Dwyer tipped in, and the Canes had a late lead.
Immediately, though, Boychuk took an interference call, and the Canes penalty killers had to hold the fort. After an uneventful power play, Toronto drew a questionable crosschecking call against Staal after Gustavsson had been pulled for the extra attacker. Up two men for the final half-minute, Toronto had their chance, but they could not find an open line to the goal.
Carolina can't rest on the laurels of a team win for long. Wednesday night they skate in Ottawa, the team they're now tied with in the standings at ninth in the conference.