In a battle of bad teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs earned their way out of the NHL's basement by following a formula good teams find works for them.
Throw pucks at the net and crash in pursuit.
The Leafs did and now come home to the Air Canada Centre tonight with a 3-2 win in their pocket and a hot goalie to ride.
It was a technique that counted for most of the goals scored by the two most goal-starved teams in the league - including the winner by Jason Blake who followed up a shot from the line by Lee Stempniak and rang the rebound off the inside post glove side on Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward at the 11:36 mark of the third period.
It was a rare win for the Leafs - just their second on the season in 14 games - and a rare goal for Blake, who seems rejuvenated playing on a line with another speedy U.S. citizen in newcomer Phil Kessel.
"He's got so much speed its fun to play with him," said Blake, who had a game-high eight shots and scored for just the second time.
Blake had been joking in the dressing at the morning skate that the key to the Leafs turning their season around was simple: "We need more Americans on this team."
But he was more serious about his prescription for solving the Leafs goal-scoring woes.
"We need to keep doing the little things and keep going to the net and good things will happen," he said.
While Kessel wasn't quite as dangerous as he was in his Leafs debut on Tuesday, his speed and offensive instincts seemed to mesh well with Blake, who had just seven points so far this season, and it was the Wisconsin native who - along with Stempniak - assisted on the Minnesota-born winger's power-play goal.
For the Leafs, it was a rare opportunity to play a team in a shakier mental state then their own as Carolina was looking for their first win in 11 games.
"We're just trying to stop the bleeding," was 'Canes coach Paul Maurice pregame hope.
The Leafs made it a little more nervous than it perhaps needed to be when Francois Beauchemin was called for tripping with 22 seconds left, but the Leafs defended that thanks to a pair of Jonas Gustavsson saves in the final seconds to ice the win.
Toronto didn't make it look easy as Carolina held a 36-26 edge in shots, but Gustavsson erased his share of sins to the delight of his teammates.
"The whole bench gets pretty excited when they see the saves he can pull off," said Wilson.
As they have in every game but one this season, the Leafs gave up the critical first goal. They survived an early Carolina power play - again not atypical - as Matt Stajan was sent off for holding. That seemed to embolden the Hurricanes as they set up as if on a power play a moment later and were rewarded as 'Canes captain Rod Brind'Amour made a neat play to redirect a pass from the point by Joe Corvo to the slot with his skate. Rookie Brandon Sutter - yes the next generation of the famous hockey family - pounced on a loose puck and managed to chip a backhand past Gustavsson for his third goal since being called up five games ago, this one coming at the 7:51 mark of the first.
A giveaway by Ian White allowed Carolina to go up 2-0 on a goal by Sergei Samsonov prior to the intermission to the chagrin of Wilson, who let his displeasure be felt at the break.
"I said you have to get mad at some point," said Wilson. "We've only got one win in 13 games, when his someone going to get upset here?"
The Leafs came out with some resolve after the intermission and pulled themselves back into it on a fairly innocent looking shot from the top of the circle by John Mitchell that caught Brind'Amour's skate and seemed to fool Cam Ward, perhaps the least dangerous of number of chances Mitchell generated on the shift with Kessel and Blake.
By that time the momentum had clearly shifted and the Leafs began driving the net with the expectation they might get met by a puck there and were proven right when Alexei Ponikarovsky chipped it off the boards at the blueline, won the race to the puck in the corner and centred it where Nikolai Kulemin put it behind Ward in a shower of snow to tie the score 2-2.
Notes One of the few teams to have made the Maple Leafs look like an offensive juggernaut this season, Carolina was aching for goals having scored more than two goals in just three games this season and coming off being blanked 3-0 in Florida on Wednesday even though Carolina had a 21-4 edge in shots in the first period. . ..Leafs defenceman Jeff Finger was happy to get in the lineup for the first time after six games as a healthy scratch: "For me it's a matter of putting things in perspective. In the end, we're all still doing what we love to do whether we're playing or not. It's tough for other people to believe that, but I wouldn't choose another thing to do whether I'm playing or not. You just have to keep in perspective; it's not easy but it's what you have to do." ... After Phil Kessel's 10-shot debut on Tuesday, Leafs head coach Ron Wilson wasn't counting on a repeat of his high-flying start. "He actually might tail off," said Wilson. "Most guys who have an injury come back after an extensive layoff, you get a bit of jump and then they tail off the second night. I hope that doesn't happen, but I'm prepared for it." Next Tonight, Detroit Red Wings at the Air Canada Centre, 7 p.m.
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