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Carolina Hurricanes Chad LaRose (centre right) celebrates scoring the Hurricanes' opening goal with teammates Tim Gleason (centre left) and Andrew Alberts (right) as they skate past Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere during first period action of the NHL game in Toronto on Tuesday March 2, 2010.


After two weeks of some of the most skilled, entertaining hockey Canadians have witnessed at the 2010 Winter Olympics, this was a first step back to reality.

The worst and second-worst teams in the NHL's Eastern Conference. A rookie goaltender in the Carolina Hurricanes' net, making his third career start. And a dull, meaningless game, 5-1 on the scoreboard and full of intrigue only because so many of the players involved - nine in all - could very well have new homes by the time the 3 p.m. EST trade deadline passes today.

Welcome back to the NHL.

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The game itself was another loss for the home side - the Toronto Maple Leafs' league-leading 43rd of the year if extra-time losses are included - but it scarcely matters given general manager Brian Burke already has his eyes fixed on the future.

One sure sign of that was Leafs winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, the subject of countless rumours for more than a month, sitting out as a healthy scratch - precisely to ensure that health continued long enough for a deal to be made. By the third period, Toronto had pulled off the trade, sending Ponikarovsky to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for prospect Luca Caputi and defenceman Martin Skoula.

Burke's counterpart with the Hurricanes, Jim Rutherford, made a similar play with his lineup, exiling defenceman Aaron Ward to the press box for popcorn duty as the veteran GM worked the phones in search of the 37-year-old's next NHL home.

"I'm pretty sure it's going to happen," said Ward, who bizarrely compared his fate to waiting for a trip to the electric chair. "At my age, it's more or less inevitable.

"It's a loaded question for a player," he continued, philosophically. "I mean, do you want to stay with your family? Of course. Do you want to stay in an atmosphere where you feel pretty comfortable? Of course. But it's always a good thing as a professional athlete to feel wanted. Teams aren't going to make moves towards the end unless they feel you can do something for them."

Needless to say, he's one of the nine who's not exactly thrilled to be a two-month mercenary.

For the seven potential rental players who did play - Lee Stempniak, Wayne Primeau and Garnet Exelby for the Leafs and Joe Corvo, Ray Whitney, Scott Walker and Andrew Alberts for the Hurricanes - it was a trying experience skating in what could very well be their final game in uniforms they've grown used to playing - and losing - in this season.

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"It's not hard on me - I don't think I'm getting traded today. Or tomorrow," Leafs coach Ron Wilson quipped. "Certainly for the players. Especially since they've been hearing about it before the Olympic break. ..... I don't know how many times a guy like Poni has been asked the same question over and over."

The Leafs, in particular, played like they were in a fog all game, struggling to beat Carolina goalie Justin Peters - filling in admirably for the injured Cam Ward - all night. Toronto's defensive blunders provided plenty of fodder for the Air Canada Centre's boo birds, who at 4-0 turned up the volume during a two-minute stretch in which the Leafs played like an inept, five-man penalty kill unit and couldn't clear their zone.

A few of the Leafs admitted all of the trade speculation may have been a factor in their performance, something their coach wasn't buying.

"They have more guys apparently available than we do," Wilson said of the Hurricanes. "So it didn't affect their play. To me that's a lame excuse for not being ready to play.

"If you had a checklist [for how to play] we didn't check very many things off. ..... It was just awful."

Of the rentals, only Whitney and Stempniak found the scoresheet, with the Hurricanes veteran registering a pretty assist on Carolina's second goal in a nice display of what he can bring to a contender should he waive his no-trade clause today.

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All of the energy and excitement that the acquisitions of Dion Phaneuf and Jean-Sébastien Giguère brought to the Leafs last month, meanwhile, appears to have withered away over the Olympic break, as Toronto was as flat as it's been all season. While the postseason is essentially out of reach for both clubs - Carolina will need to win 15 of its final 20 games to crawl into the race, Toronto has to win them all - the red-hot Hurricanes at least can climb out of the bottom five and lottery draft position.

No such luck for the Leafs - and especially not after Burke continues to gut an already-gutted roster some time today.

All that's likely to be left is young bodies trying to win jobs and, come April, watching the lottery balls fall where they may.

That - and more booing at the ACC.

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