Kessel scores 2, leads Maple Leafs over Hurricanes
Don't count Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle among those anxiously awaiting the upcoming Winter Classic — not even after his club beat the Carolina Hurricanes.
Phil Kessel scored twice, reaching the 20-goal plateau for the sixth straight season, to help the Maple Leafs top the Hurricanes 5-2 on Sunday night.
The game marked the halfway point of the season for Toronto (20-16-5) and was its last outing before Wednesday's outdoor Winter Classic against Detroit at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I wasn't waving the pom-poms to be involved with it to start with," Carlyle said. "We haven't played as well as we'd like to hang our hat on. Our group, we believe, has got lots of room to grow, so that always put added pressure on. Then you're much more under the microscope if you can believe it.
"We're here to win hockey games, and that's the most important thing."
Toronto has earned points in five straight games.
Nikolai Kulemin, Paul Ranger and Dion Phaneuf, with an empty-net goal with 8 seconds remaining, also scored for Toronto.
Nathan Gerbe and Justin Faulk had goals for Carolina (14-16-9), which has lost five straight including two in overtime.
Jonathan Bernier made 41 saves as Carolina outshot Toronto 43-27.
Tyler Bozak returned to the Maple Leafs' top line after a 12-game absence due to an oblique injury. He showed off his playmaking skills with three assists and made an important backcheck to thwart a Hurricanes threat.
Maple Leafs forward David Clarkson went to the dressing room in the second period after apparently hitting the boards, but returned in the third and smashed Tuomo Ruutu to the ice.
"Probably the best period of hockey he's played for us," Carlyle said.
The Maple Leafs' previous four games were shootouts — a club-record streak that featured two wins and two losses.
Coming into the game, Carolina had only won one of eight, a stretch that featured four overtime losses.
"We had enough chances to win a hockey game," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. "The chances were there. They scored and we didn't."
Carlyle agreed that his club had a loose performance.
"I thought at times we seemed like we were overmatched in a lot of areas," he said.
The Hurricanes followed a popular, simple strategy against Toronto — dumping the puck in and forcing the Leafs to play defense.
"We haven't been able to handle that or manage the game properly in that area, and we have to get better at it," Carlyle said.
After surviving a poor start against Buffalo to win via a shootout Friday, it seemed like more of the same Sunday for the Leafs.
Leading the NHL in giveaways with 475 going into the game, Toronto had 11 turnovers in the first two periods.
Toronto also didn't manage a shot until 11-plus minutes into the first period in which the Maple Leafs wobbled at times in their end.
A power play helped put the Leafs in the shot column, and Toronto gradually began to spend time in the Carolina end.
The Leafs went ahead after a faceoff when Bozak dug the puck out to Kessel, whose backhand from behind the goal-line went in off goalie Cam Ward for his 19th of the season at 16:56.
It was perhaps payback for the odd goal that gave the Hurricanes a 3-2 win in Toronto in October when a bad bounce off the boards on a shoot-in caromed in off Bernier with the Maple Leafs thinking icing might be called.
Gerbe tied it at 1:36 of the second period after talking a pass from Alexander Semin in the corner and beating Bernier from near the faceoff dot. It was the sixth point in six games for the 5-foot-5 Gerbe.
Carolina's Manny Malhotra hit the goal post midway through the second period as Toronto found itself penned in its end.
Toronto then pulled ahead with two goals in 76 seconds.
A pretty passing play between Kessel and van Riemsdyk made it 2-1 at 13:42, with van Riemsdyk sending the puck back to Kessel from in-close.
Kulemin then beat Ward with a shot from the top of the circle at 14:58 to make it 2-2, prompting Carolina coach Kirk Muller to call a timeout. It was Kulemin's fifth of the season.
A 4-on-3 helped Carolina as Faulk scored his third of the season with a slap shot with 2:17 remaining in the period to close the gap to 3-2.
Ranger added an insurance goal at 4:58 of the third. It was the defenseman's second goal of the season and the 100th point of his NHL career.
Ward's start was only his second since Dec. 10. Justin Peters had started five of six.
For Toronto, it was Bernier's 28th appearance of the season, compared to 18 for James Reimer.
Bernier has started nine of 15 games, with Reimer pulled during two of his six starts during that stretch.
The Hurricanes had won 17 of the last 24 meetings, including five after regulation before Sunday. Carolina hasn't lost a season series to the Leafs since 2006-07.
NOTES: The return of Bozak prompted the Maple Leafs to assign forward Jerred Smithson to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. ... Eric Staal played his 730th game for the Hurricanes, tying Glen Wesley for the most with the franchise since the team relocated from Hartford.