TORONTO - On a night the Toronto Maple Leafs desperately needed someone to step up, Tim Connolly answered the call.
There was an undeniable sense of relief after the veteran centre scored both goals in a tight 2-1 overtime victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night. It was Connolly's first big moment as a member of the Maple Leafs and halted the team's slow slide down the standings.
Even in December, that's front and centre in everyone's mind.
"I'm just happy to get the two points, that's a huge win for us the way the standings are and the way they're going to be throughout the season," said Connolly. "It's going to be a constant grind. With three-point games the way they are now and overtime games, it's going to be close the whole way through.
"It puts us right back in the mix of things."
The Leafs sit sixth in the Eastern Conference, just two points ahead of three teams.
That's what made victory feel even better on a night where all of the offence came with less than five minutes to play in the third period. The struggling Hurricanes were in position to steal the game because of the strong play of goalie Cam Ward, who smashed his stick in frustration after letting a Joffrey Lupul shot dribble past him before Connolly swept home the winner 44 seconds into overtime.
"He's a top goalie in the league, has been for awhile now," said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. "Some nights you run into a guy like that. I thought it really showed a lot of character, a lot of resilience, to come back and win that game in overtime."
James Reimer stopped 18 shots to pick up his first victory since October for the Maple Leafs (16-11-3).
Alex Ponikarovsky replied for the Hurricanes (9-18-5), who fell to 1-5-1 since Kirk Muller replaced Paul Maurice as coach on Nov. 28. Ward finished with 36 saves.
It was the sort of game neither struggling team could afford to lose, which was reflected by the tight play.
After more than 55 minutes of scoreless hockey, Connolly finally broke through by tipping home Clarke MacArthur's shot at 15:46 of the third period. However, Lupul was called for high-sticking and Ponikarovsky tied it at 18:06 by converting a cross-crease pass.
That set the stage for Connolly's overtime goal, which was especially popular among the Leafs players because of who scored it.
"I think it's great to see a guy like that get rewarded," said Phaneuf. "I've got nothing but real good things to say about Timmy Connolly, the way that he plays."
Added winger Colby Armstrong, who told Connolly on the bench he would score the winner: "Good on him, it's great playing with him. I thought he deserved a game like that the way he was going tonight."
Connolly was Toronto's most notable free-agent signing over the summer but had his start with the team interrupted by separate upper-body injuries. He's been a constant in the lineup the last 12 games and is starting finding his rhythm—a happy development for a team in need of secondary scoring.
In 18 games this season, Connolly has six goals and 15 points.
"I think he's played really well and he's done all the things that we thought he could do," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
The Hurricanes were left trying to find some positives after yet another disheartening loss. They sit dead last in the Eastern Conference and face an uphill struggle to reverse the course with leading scorer Jeff Skinner on the sidelines with an undisclosed injury.
One bright spot was Ward, who made good on his vow to be better after getting pulled in two of his last three starts coming in.
"(Ward) expects a lot of himself, he's just got to do what he can control," Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. "He did that tonight and he did a very good job at it. I thought he was our best player and he kept us in it. It was a tough one at the end there, they got a bounce and that was the end of the game."
Toronto, meanwhile, faces a tough weekend with a visit to Buffalo on Friday and a home game against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.
With the playoff race already a topic of conversation around the Leafs and the standings tightening up, Wilson tried to downplay the importance of the current stretch.
"If we're feeling pressure the second week of December, we're in a lot of trouble," he said. "There's no pressure or anything like that. Our guys had a very professional approach to the game tonight—you wouldn't know that we were one of the youngest teams in the league how poised we were right through the whole game."
Notes: Skinner missed his second straight game for Carolina. The team is expected to update his condition Wednesday. ... Leafs tough guy Colton Orr was scratched for a ninth straight game. ... Phaneuf played his 500th career NHL game. ... Announced attendance was 19,509.