Cam Ward was terrific, stopping anything and everything the Toronto Maple Leafs threw his way.
The rest of Carolina Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller’s troops, however, were well on their way to finding a cure for insomnia, playing the very definition of a road game – minus the necessary pucks in the other net – in nearly skating to a 0-0 tie after regulation.
Then, finally, came the goals – with one apiece in the final four minutes – and Tim Connolly’s dramatic winner 44 seconds into extra time, giving the Leafs a well-deserved 2-1 win Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre.
And all Ward could do was crack his goal stick in half and quickly skate off.
It was hard to blame him, given how tilted the ice had been all night. The Leafs outshot the Hurricanes 13-5 in the first period, 13-7 in the second and 9-6 in the third – evidence that Muller’s new charges aren’t sure quite yet what to make of his tweaks.
“We just had to keep playing the way we were,” Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. “We were controlling the speed, the shot clock, the scoring chances. We didn’t want to try and sell the farm to score a goal.”
Ward, however, was a wall, stopping several good chances and keeping the game scoreless deep into the third. The Leafs then broke the stalemate, with Connolly tipping in his first of the night on Toronto’s 34th shot on goal to open the game up.
Carolina quickly replied on the power play, taking advantage of an ill-timed highsticking call on Joffrey Lupul, as former Leafs forward Alexei Ponikarovsky tapped in a one-timer to tie things at one.
That left it to Connolly to play the overtime hero, and he potted one of his easier goals by poking in a loose puck in the crease to earn Toronto a much-needed two points.
The win was only the Leafs second in their last eight games on home ice.
“I don’t get many two-goal nights, period,” Connolly said. “But I had a few plays where I was just trying to throw it at the net. Ward was doing a great job and we were fortunate to come out with two points by just staying patient.”
On the whole, it was an odd night for Connolly, as he missed a shift on the power play early in the game after taking a puck to the groin – “I was a little wobbly” – and then had teammate Colby Armstrong predict he would score the winner.
“Army told me that I was going to go out and get it,” Connolly said. “So maybe I can give the credit to him.”
“I did,” Armstrong confirmed. “Right before he went on the ice, I said he had another one.”
Given their struggles of late, the Maple Leafs could use a few more prophecies along those lines.
KULEMIN STILL SEARCHING
Leafs winger Nikolai Kulemin’s goalless drought hit an incredible 23rd game on Tuesday, but the good news was he at least looked present and had a few decent chances to score.
His fall from a 30-goal season a year ago, to having just two after 30 games this season has been disturbing – with the only good news for the organization being he’ll command far less as a restricted free agent this summer.
With Toronto struggling to score on nights like this, however, they could sure use the 2010-11 Kulemin.
“He’s working as hard as anybody on our team,” Wilson said. “He was noticeable on every shift and eventually the puck’s going to go in.”
REIMER BACK ON TRACK
The victory was the first for Leafs netminder James Reimer in four games since his return from a head injury.
While not tested often, he was solid in making 18 saves and earned plenty of praise from his teammates for outlasting Ward.
Both are former members of the Red Deer Rebels, with Reimer following in Ward’s footsteps in 2005, when he broke into the WHL and Ward joined the Hurricanes.
Reimer said in the lead up to the game that he considers Ward a “legend” given his junior career, and the Carolina goalie nearly lived up to that billing Tuesday.
“He gave us a chance to win and that’s all you can ask,” Muller said. “That’s the Cam we know. If he starts playing like that, the results will start working his way.”