Rallying from big deficits, scoring timely goals with the clock winding down. These are the kinds of dramatics that helped the Carolina Hurricanes reach the Eastern Conference finals last season.
They’re also the kind of meltdowns that have left the Toronto Maple Leafs as the NHL’s worst team.
Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen scored in the shootout and the Hurricanes rallied from three goals down to beat the Maple Leafs 6-5 on Thursday night.
“I know that we have it in this team,” Ruutu said, “and today, we showed it.”
The latest meeting of the NHL’s worst teams had a wild finish. Ian White put the Maple Leafs ahead 5-4 with 29.9 seconds remaining, but Erik Cole tapped in a rebound with 2.9 seconds left to force overtime – in the same end of the ice where Jokinen’s off-the-skate score beat New Jersey in Game 4 of last season’s playoff series.
After an uneventful overtime, Ruutu and Jokinen beat Jonas Gustavsson with wrist shots and Manny Legace stopped Phil Kessel and Lee Stempniak to preserve his first victory with the Hurricanes. At times during their nothing’s-going-right season, it seemed like that deep playoff run took place decades – not months – ago.
“We’ve got tension. We’ve got a lot of disappointment in there for where we’re at, but they haven’t splintered and they haven’t quit on each other,” coach Paul Maurice said. “The players still fight. The players still believe, and they compete.”
Alexei Ponikarovsky had a goal and an assist, and Matt Stajan, Lee Stempniak and Mikhail Grabovski also scored for the Maple Leafs, who led 3-0 after one period but extended their winless streak to five.
Now, they have 30th place in the league all to themselves.
“We definitely let one get away there,” Stajan said. “It’s been the story all year. … Nothing’s going right. We score a goal late, it seems like things are going to turn, and they get one with two seconds left. I’m kind of at a loss for words.
“You shouldn’t lose a hockey game where you have a 3-0, let alone one with a lead with three seconds left,” he added.
Tim Gleason scored twice in the third period, Matt Cullen had a goal and an assist, and he and Stephane Yelle scored 43 seconds apart in the second to lead Carolina. Legace stopped 27 shots, and Ruutu finished with four assists for the Hurricanes in their club-record fourth straight overtime game.
“Two points? It’s better than zero points,” Ruutu said. “We’ve got to get self-confidence from this game, but at the same time, we’ve got to forget this game and do it again.”
Gustavsson made 40 saves – and assisted on Ponikarovsky’s third-period goal – for Toronto, which picked up points for the first time since Nov. 7, having lost four straight in regulation since.
“Where do you go? You go back to Toronto, you go to sleep, you wake up the next morning and you go to the practice, you stay focused on whatever needs to be done,” Ponikarovsky said. “Same old things again, all over. Just get ready for the next game and go out and win the next one.”
When these teams last met two weeks ago, the Hurricanes were in the midst of their club-worst-tying 14-game winless streak and lost to the Maple Leafs to claim the indignity of being the worst team in the NHL. Since then, Carolina lost two goalies to injury, including franchise cornerstone Cam Ward, and Legace was brought in to stabilize things for a while.
The situation in the standings hasn’t improved much for either team: Carolina entered winless in 15 of its last 16 and haven’t won a game in regulation since Oct. 9. The Maple Leafs came in with a lengthy slump of their own, having won only once since their previous visit to Raleigh. The teams entered with a combined record of 6-23-10, and each had 11 points – four behind next-closest Anaheim.
Early on, anyway, Toronto seemed determined to stop its slide by scoring 61 seconds in – the quickest goal Carolina has allowed this season – on its second shot of the night, then stretched its lead to 3-0 when Grabovski whipped in a rebound in the final moments of the period.
Then, things fell apart for the Maple Leafs.
Gleason, who entered with two goals all year, and nine in his career, tied it at 4-all with 8:04 remaining with his second goal – charging hard to the net, taking a pretty feed from Brandon Sutter and beating Gustavsson with a wrist shot.
That came after Yelle started Carolina’s comeback with about three minutes left in the second by banging in a loose puck. Moments later, Cullen beat Gustavsson with a wrist shot to make it a game again.
“I was absolutely awful,” Legace said. “And the boys just bailed me out.”
Notes: The Hurricanes gave up at least three goals in a win for the first time this season. … Yelle’s goal was his first with Carolina. … Nikolai Kulemin had two assists for the Maple Leafs. … Toronto scored first for just the third time this season. … Carolina D Andrew Alberts rang the left post midway through the first. … RW Patrick Dwyer was in the lineup for the Hurricanes, who called him up from Albany earlier in the day.