A quick glance at the standings and some simple math told everyone in blue and white that anything short of a victory over the Carolina Hurricanes would likely leave them too far back in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Toronto responded with one of its most complete performances of the season in a 6-1 win over Carolina on Tuesday.
“We realized that this was a crucial game,” said Leafs forward Chad Kilger, who led the way with two goals. “If we lose this one, we’re four points behind them with six left. That’s a pretty tough hole to get out of.”
Instead, the Maple Leafs find their playoff pulse beating just a little bit stronger.
Some favourable results in other cities saw them jump from 11th to a tie for ninth in the conference. Toronto trails Montreal by two points for the final playoff spot and hold a game in hand.
What makes that picture even rosier is the balanced attack the Maple Leafs have been getting as of late. In addition to the pair by Kilger on Tuesday, the Leafs got goals from Boyd Devereaux, Pavel Kubina, Yanic Perreault and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
“That’s the big reason we’ve been playing so well – we’ve been getting scoring from all four lines,” said Leafs captain Mats Sundin. “Everybody’s contributing and chipping in.”
Eric Staal replied for the Hurricanes, who are also battling to make the post-season after winning the Stanley Cup last spring.
Like Toronto, Carolina is tied for ninth in the East with 84 points and six games remaining. They weren’t going to dwell on Tuesday’s game very long.
“We lost,” said Staal. “It doesn’t matter how we lost.”
Added coach Peter Laviolette: “This game has to be left here.”
The Maple Leafs showed urgency right from the start of Tuesday’s game.
Devereaux opened the scoring 43 seconds in when he beat Carolina starter Cam Ward through the legs with a weak shot. It was the quickest goal Toronto had scored all season and the fourth straight time they’ve gotten on the board first.
“We’ve come out of the gate well,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice, whose team has also won six straight at home. “Confidence is a big part of the game.”
Staal tied it 1-1 just over a minute after the Leafs had taken the early lead and the teams started trading chances.
Toronto got the next break as Kubina put them ahead for good at 14:31 with some help from Ward. The Leafs defenceman hammered a shot from the point that was trickling in before Ward accidentally swiped the puck into his own goal.
Kilger made it 3-1 a little over three minutes later when he wired a shot over Ward’s glove on a solo rush up the left wing. It was a tough opening period for the 23-year-old goalie, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last year.
“We needed to get out and have a good start,” said Hurricanes forward Erik Cole. “We didn’t really do that tonight.”
It didn’t get any better for them in the second.
Kilger made it 4-1 at 7:17 by sweeping a fat rebound behind Ward before Perreault was sent in on a breakaway and beat the Carolina goalie with a nice move to make it 5-1 at 11:18.
Laviolette promptly inserted backup John Grahame. This one was out of reach and the Hurricanes would need a rested Ward for their game Wednesday in Philadelphia.
Still, the Leafs weren’t taking anything for granted after Friday’s three-goal, third-period collapse in Buffalo.
“At 4-1 and 5-1, we weren’t joking around on the bench,” said Maurice. “I think Friday night’s third period had a whole lot to do with us wanting to win so bad and seizing up.
“Maybe, hopefully, the price that we paid that night will be the difference in the end.”
Ponikarovsky’s goal at 5:21 of the third period made it 6-1 and loosened things up a little.
The 19,559 in attendance at Air Canada Centre celebrated loudly after that goal and a few fans in a private box behind the Hurricanes goal unravelled a giant bedsheet that read: “We believe.”
Indeed, Toronto’s post-season hopes seem very much alive.
Notes: Perreault’s goal was the 500th point of his career . . . Hurricanes defenceman Glen Wesley left the game in the second period with an injury. He was seen limping to the team bus with a soft boot cast on his left foot . . . Leafs forward Kyle Wellwood only played one shift after the first period . . . Toronto’s Jeff O’Neill was a healthy scratch for a second straight game after being held pointless in 12 straight before that . . . Sundin failed to score for a sixth straight game. He remains one goal back of Darryl Sittler for the career franchise record.