RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Shhhhh. Don't jinx it.
There were goals—seven of them in the third period alone, and two each by Brandon Sutter and Toronto's Tim Brent. Goals can be scored five ways in the NHL, and this game checked off four of them—even strength, power play, shorthanded, and empty net—everything but a penalty shot.
There were saves—Jean-Sebastien Giguere's pad flashed to parry a hard drive from Eric Staal from the slot midway through the second; Cam Ward robbed Francois Beauchemin when he walked in all alone a few minutes later. Both of these goalies have won Conn Smythe honors as playoffs MVPs.
There were cheers—a noisy 16,000+, countering numerous Maple Leaf fans, summoned spontaneous "Goal! Goal! Goal!" chants during a lengthy review of a Jeff Skinner wraparound attempt in the second period, and then "Ref you suck" chants thereafter.
There were hits—defenseman (née linebacker) Dion Phaneuf rocked Tuomo Ruutu at center ice only 30 seconds in, while Joni Pitkanen threw his frame around all night long.
There were terrible calls by the officials—Erik Cole was penalized for being hauled down by Kris Versteeg, giving the Leafs a 5-on-3 advantage in the second; Ryan Carter cross-checked Fredrik Sjostrom into Ward halfway through the third and Sjostrom got the gate for goaltender interference.
There were fights—Clarke MacArthur spun Chad LaRose down twice during a first-period tussle that traversed half the ice sheet.
And there was blood—Tim Gleason, after patiently enduring a series of moderate jabs to the puss from Nikolai Kulemin after the first-period horn, busted Kulemin's nose with a single uppercut, leaving a red mess for the ice scrapers. Gleason's game misconduct left the Canes with only five defensemen for the final 40 minutes.
"It was probably exciting if you didn't have a huge stake in the game," coach Paul Maurice quipped wryly. "If you weren't, like, betting a lot, or got paid on it, it was probably a great one to watch."
It was, if your team won. And the home crowd's team did. Now they're a point behind the Atlanta Thrashers. If, on Wednesday, the Canes beat the Islanders and the Capitals beat Altanta, Carolina's in the playoff bracket for the All-Star break.
As a team, the Leafs are not at the very bottom of the standings anymore, but they're not within striking distance of the Canes either. They seem different from shift to shift. Sometimes their talent coalesces into a play and other times it doesn't. Sometimes they play as five discrete individuals on the ice; other times they execute tic-tac-toe passing plays to spring breakaways or turn opponents into spectators.
Maurice, who used to coach the Leafs, squinted at the ceiling to muse upon the mystery of the Leafs. "We have some strange games with Toronto. They are all over the ice and we have a hard time finding them at times."
There's no problem finding the Canes, though. They're that team that's moving up the standings, inexorably, a point at a time. But don't jinx it.