RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—A month ago, the Canes would have folded. But in the last home game of the year, they didn't. And the captain led the way.
"It was all about our leadership tonight. Sutter, Staal, and Ward—those guys," coach Kirk Muller noted after the comeback win. "Staal was the best player on the ice tonight and there are a lot of people in our room who are happy for him."
Staal has labored through a miserable season, skating under high expectations that seemed many nights to weigh quite literally on his shoulders. His final line against Toronto reads two goals, an assist, and five shots on goal—a dominant, and perhaps emergent, game. But the truth is that he's been reassembling his game one piece at a time for more than a month now, and finding his way onto the scoresheet more consistently over the last two weeks. He started in the face-off circle, worked harder backchecking and fighting for pucks in the corners and, buoyed by occasional stints as a winger rather than a center, started showing flashes of speed and creativity in the offensive zone.
Staal's breakaway snapshot goal midway through the third period may have snapped the last piece of his game into place.
The Canes got off to another fast start, which can legitimately be said to be Muller's stamp on this team. Barely four minutes in, Brandon Sutter stepped into the slot with a well-earned feed from Drayson Bowman from along the boards, shedding hapless defender Tyler Bozak, and roofed the puck over James Reimer’s glove before the goalie could react. Sutter had started the play by rushing the puck into the zone through some pretty good resistance from Cody Franson, outjousting the defender to enter the zone and then stopping short to create some space to work with.
Then, Sutter’s shot was snake-quick. He didn’t line it up and uncoil his whole body; he just threw it with his stick for his eighth goal of the year. His upper body didn't even rotate with the force of the shot.
Reimer coughed out big rebounds throughout the first period as Carolina repeatedly rushed the Toronto zone, but the Canes couldn't cash in on them. And then the penalties began.
After an unsettled Canes power play that seemed to take something from them, Toronto got their mojo going on consecutive calls on Jiri Tlusty for hooking and Tim Gleason for clearing the puck over the glass just 30 seconds after Tlusty was freed. The Leafs entered the game with the league's second-best power play.
After the game ended, however, it would rank fifth.
Staal and Sutter deserve the headlines, but the page-two story of the game was Carolina's penalty kill. Toronto came up empty on seven chances in the game, admittedly scoring one of their goals a second after a penalty expired, but still. Phil Kessel, whose man-advantage one-timers from the circle have kept him among the league's scoring leaders all season, did not manage a shot on goal for the entire game—the first time that's happened this season.
Toronto started the second period like Carolina started the first. Not 2minutes in, Nazem Kadri darted away from Justin Faulk behind the goal. Faulk tried to step in front of Cam Ward to defend Kadri's wraparound but the winger was too quick and the game was tied 1-1.
The Leafs' momentum continued as Ward had to make one of his best of 21 saves on the night on David Steckel’s tip of a point shot on the next shift. Then Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin started generating chances on every shift and the Canes were scrambling.
When Tlusty took a double minor penalty for highsticking Steckel with a couple minutes left in the period, a Toronto goal seemed likely, but Clarke MacArthur lost the puck upon entry to the Carolina zone and then blatantly hooked Jussi Jokinen to try to keep him from clearing the puck, so the teams finished the period playing four-on-four.
The third period began as one might expect of a game tied 1-1 after 40 minutes. No one wanted to make a mistake, patiently dumping, chasing, and clearing pucks and changing lines. But then all hell broke loose.
Past the six-minute mark, Kulemin crashed the net to finish a furious Leafs rush. After Darryl Boyce took an aerial feel from Grabowski to charge the side of the net, Kulemin chopped in the rebound to give Toronto their first lead.
Then Bryan Allen immediately took a foolish slashing call in the corner to put the Leafs up a man. The penalty killers were valiant, none more so than Ward, who stopped a pair of point blasts from Dion Phaneuf. But a moment after Allen stepped back onto the ice, Kessel feathered a neat pass from the point through line-change traffic toward the goal and Joffrey Lupul tipped it through Ward's legs for his 17th of the season.
The Leafs led 3-1 with a bit over ten minutes left. In November, it would have been time to head for the parking lot. But Staal quickly made Canes fans drop their keys back into their pockets.
He pulled the Canes to 3-2 on the next shift, snapping a quick shot past Reimer's blocker on a breakaway sprung by Dalpe chipping the puck up the boards from out of a redline scrum. Staal's had breakaway chances throughout the season, but something always seems to happen. The puck jumps his stick, or he gets too close to the goalie and has no shot, or he misses the goal, or he tries to drop a blind pass to a trailer.
Not this time. He took his time to settle the puck, chose his target, and fired it home.
Staal wasn't done. Two minutes later he barged around the Toronto zone to bring the puck strong to the net. Tlusty jammed at Reimer's pads twice before Dalpe swooped in. As he skated behind the goal, Dalpe fished the puck back from the goalie's pad just enough to have an angle to pitchfork it into the roof of the net on his backhand to tie the game.
Plenty of time was left at that point but the game settled somewhat after four goals in about as many minutes of play. With just under six minutes left, MacArthur came in alone on a breakaway but Sutter closed from behind and swiped the puck off his stick, garnering a cheer almost as loud as if the Canes had scored a goal. Then Carolina gave the Leafs a late power play by flubbing a line change and having six skaters on the ice. Ward denied Phaneuf on another pair of point blasts and regulation time ended.
Sutter's backcheck started the winning sequence in overtime as he caught up to a great cross-ice feed from Kadri to Tim Connolly and drew a trip from Connolly as he tried to step up ice with the puck.
Muller brought the team to the bench to huddle over the whiteboard. They set up a static four-on-three power play that was obviously meant to feed Staal for one-timers from the circle. But Toronto couldn't stop it. Staal's winner fled under Reimer's glove-side armpit to set off a mad celebration.
While no one would be surprised if the Canes squander those good feelings in their next game in Tampa on Saturday, this Toronto win feels somehow different. Staal is that difference. If he's added scoring back into his game, then the Canes might just keep rolling.