FSN SOUTH (TV)—A little over a week ago, the Hurricanes finished a game with the Maple Leafs and found themselves a point out of a playoff spot. After tonight's game, they found themselves in the exact same position.
Toronto avenged a wild-and-woolly 6-4 loss in Raleigh on January 24 by shutting out the Canes 3-0 in Air Canada Center behind 27 saves by rookie netminder James Reimer. Clarke MacArthur, Darryl Boyce, and Kris Versteeg scored on Cam Ward, who counted one of his best saves of the year among his 38 stops in the loss.
Toronto also responded to the bigger story in the earlier game—the haymaker that Tim Gleason delivered to Nikolai Kulemin, breaking his nose. Several Leafs spoke of a grudge against Gleason heading into this game, as Kulemin was clearly mismatched in the one-punch bout. On friendlier ice, roughneck James Rosehill and Gleason exchanged a mad flurry of fists during the first period.
Seeds of more than discontent were sewn in the January game, in which defensive-zone lapses by Carolina were swept under the carpet by their half-dozen goals. Carolina's weaknesses could not be ignored on this night, however, particularly Joni Pitkanen's tepid play.
After a scoreless first through which the home crowd waited to see who would fight Gleason and when, the Leafs ratcheted up their play in the second. MacArthur's dart caught Carolina defenders flatfooted at the 7:28 mark to open scoring. But within two minutes, the Leafs took two penalties to give the Canes 96 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage.
Carolina saw the lopsided power play as a chance to get back in the game, but the Leafs saw it as a chance to finish it.
Tim Brent blocked three shots and the Hurricanes—despite skating five forwards—couldn't get many pucks to the net. The ones that did get to Reimer were easy enough to turn aside, deadened by sticks, shins, and any other body part of kind of equipment Toronto could throw in the way. As Toronto returned to even strength, the crowd stood and roared.
Quickly, the Leafs capitalized on the momentum swing. Pitkanen tried to clear the puck up the boards and out of his zone but threw a cream puff to Darryl Boyce inside the blueline instead. Boyce walked past Pitkanen and beat Ward to put Toronto up 2-0 with five minutes left in the period.
Carolina nearly get that goal back on a power play with about three minutes left in the frame. Sergei Samsonov fired a rebound from beside the goal off of and over Reimer. The puck danced along the goal line paint, but Luke Schenn flicked it beneath Reimer at the last second. Reimer steadied and stoned Chad LaRose on a clean breakaway in the final minute of the period.
Reimer's positioning was sound all evening. Almost six minutes into the third, Jeff Skinner was set up for a hard slapshot from the circle, but Reimer was already where he needed to be. Thud, went the leg pad. Moments later Zach Boychuk caught a defender off balance and walked out in front for a point-blank shot. Reimer had the post covered, though, and showed nothing to Boychuk. Thud, went the puck against the blue leaf on his chest.
The Leafs unsteadily cleared the puck, but Pitkanen had a chance to hold it in at the blueline. He poked at it weakly, though, as if prodding roadkill to see if it's dead. Toronto rushed past him en masse and flooded the Carolina zone.
Ward did his best to answer Reimer's heroics, unfurling a save that will grace highlight reels perhaps for as long as number 30 is talked about. After a pass drew Ward and the defenders in front of him to one side, Tomas Kaberle found Brent cruising down the slot unchecked. Brent had the entire net to shoot at, but Ward dove across glove first and batted the puck back out. Ward didn't so much lunge for the puck as rematerialize in front of it.
Play continued, however, and before the crowd was finished with their deflated "ahh," Dion Phaneuf flung a diagonal pass to Versteeg at the other side of the goal. He didn't miss the corner of open net that Ward showed him, and the Leafs had an insurmountable 3-0 lead.
Carolina has now lost both games since the All-Star break. It is likely little consolation that the Atlanta Thrashers have also dropped a pair to gain no ground in the standings. The Thrashers visit the RBC Center on Saturday night for what should be a spirited tilt.