TORONTO – With the NHL trade deadline looming and players from both clubs scratched and awaiting their fate, the Carolina Hurricanes put the distractions aside on Tuesday night.
The Hurricanes downed the listless Maple Leafs 5-1 as both teams resumed their schedules after the Vancouver Olympics. The game took on a different tone before the opening faceoff as Leafs forward Alexei Ponikarovsky sat out amidst reports Toronto GM Brian Burke had a deal in place with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After the game the deal was confirmed, as Toronto shipped Ponikarovsky to Pittsburgh in exchange for defenceman Martin Skoula and prospect Luca Caputi.
Leafs centre John Mitchell, who scored his team’s only goal of the game, said prior to the deal becoming official that Ponikarovsky’s status had no impact on the Maple Leafs’ performance.
“I don’t think you should look at Pony and where he goes as a distraction,” Mitchell said. “We’re all professionals here and we have to go out and play. We know what’s at stake, especially on a day like this. We shouldn’t be distracted by that, but maybe some guys are.”
Jean-Sebastien Giguere had a rough night in goal for Toronto, but agreed the rumours had no bearing on the team’s performance.
“Every team is going through this right now, they’re going through the same thing,” he said. “There’s tons of talk about Carolina trading some players. It’s no excuse right now. We have a job to do and we didn’t find a way to do it tonight.”
Chad LaRose – who returned to the lineup after missing the previous seven games before the break due to an undisclosed injury – had a goal and two assists for Carolina, while Tuomo Ruutu, Brandon Sutter, Jussi Jokinen and Sergei Samsonov also scored.
Justin Peters, making just his third NHL start, stopped every shot the Leafs threw his way until Mitchell finally broke the shutout bid with five minutes to go in the third.
With both teams struggling this season, it’s widely expected Toronto (19-32-11) and Carolina (25-30-7) will be among the busier teams prior to Wednesday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline.
With Ponikarovsky sitting awaiting his fate, Carolina also made healthy scratches of defenceman Aaron Ward and centre Stephane Yelle. All three players are eligible for unrestricted free agency this July.
Other pending-UFAs mentioned in trade talk that took part in Tuesday’s game include the Leafs’ Lee Stempniak, Wayne Primeau and Garnet Exelby, and the Hurricanes’ Ray Whitney, Joe Corvo and Scott Walker.
For Leafs coach Ron Wilson, Tuesday’s game was a cruel reminder that his day job can be much more trying than the two-week gig he had coaching Team USA’s silver medal-winning club at the Olympics.
“It was like the old Aqua Velva commercial – the slap across the face and like, ‘back to reality,”‘ Wilson said.
Giguere quickly reminded fans they were no longer watching Olympic-calibre hockey less than three minutes in, when he completely mishandled the puck behind his net, leading to an easy goal for LaRose.
“We had a whole week to get ready and I can be the first to blame for that,” Giguere said of the flat start. “It’s a tough goal to give at the beginning of the game, it’s hard to get energy. I’m supposed to come out hard and try to give energy to the team and some confidence and it was a tough goal to give up.”
Whitney, the most talented of any player in the game rumoured to be on the move, showed why a contending club might covet his playmaking skills on Carolina’s second goal, which came 46 seconds into the second.
The slick forward spotted Jokinen streaking toward the Leafs net and he beat Giguere high.
Sutter was then left all alone in front of the Toronto goal and banged home a pass from LaRose to make it 3-0. Ruutu took a pass from Finnish Olympic teammate Joni Pitkanen, and fired a shot high over Giguere’s glove from the faceoff circle.
Samsonov’s third-period goal was also soft, as he squeezed a weak shot through Giguere from a sharp angle.
With the sloppy performance behind them, the Leafs can now anxiously await any and all changes that might be coming before Wednesday’s deadline.
Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle, who has a no-trade clause, said his status hasn’t changed since he spoke to Burke last summer.
Still, the veteran of 11 seasons with the Leafs acknowledged it’s difficult to predict how things will play out.
“We talked, me and Brian Burke after last season and we kept saying the same thing to each other and that hasn’t changed to this day,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to talk about (as far as) waiving or moving or anything like that.
“Obviously you never say never, but I’m here right now and we’ll take it like that.”
Notes: Forward Jamie Lundmark played his first game with the Maple Leafs after the club claimed him on waivers from the Calgary Flames on Feb. 13. … Defenceman Alexandre Picard, whom Carolina acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators before the Olympic break, made his Hurricanes debut. … Eric Staal picked up an assist in his first game back with the Hurricanes since winning a gold medal with Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team. Announced attendance was 19,096.