RALEIGH, N.C. – Eric and Jordan Staal both scored as the Carolina Hurricanes beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 at PNC Arena on Friday.
The third and final game of the season between the two teams could have been a rowdy and intense affair – but it wasn’t.
Following two consecutive 4-1 wins for the Hurricanes, the second matchup between the two teams on Jan. 19th in Toronto in particular ended with some animosity between the teams’ captains – Carolina’s Eric Staal and Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf.
After both engaged in a pretty good scrap, the result of Eric standing up for a hit that Phaneuf put on brother Jordan, the Carolina captain’s empty-net goal, a point-blank slap shot past the Toronto defenseman, created quite a stir.
Not on the ice, but more off of it.
As Toronto media questioned some of the Maple Leafs players following the pregame skate about the incident and whether it would fuel them to come out strong against the Hurricanes, it seemed the hype was more than the actual performance that followed.
Sure, both teams played a close, tight-checking game separated by one goal for most of it, but the 12,563 in attendance didn’t have much reason to cheer or get overly excited about during much of it.
The game lacked the passion and emotion that many would have hoped it would have.
Phaneuf was on injured reserve and didn’t play and no one else from the Leafs side really made a case to try to stake a claim of restoring any pride to a team that’s lost 19 of 21 games in 2015 so far.
“No, I don’t think there was any carryover and obviously the cast of characters has changed a little bit so that plays into it,” Carolina head coach Bill Peters said.
“The game in general I didn’t think had a ton of emotion or desperation – either way. I didn’t think it was ill-tempered at all.”
It turned out to be an average, end-to-end affair that got recorded into the NHL record books as a win for Carolina and a loss for Toronto.
Not much more than that.
Even as both teams’ hopes for playing in the postseason continued to fade farther away, battling one another for third-last spot in the Eastern Conference could have at least been more entertaining or memorable.
Unfortunately, it seemed that the impact and criticism of losing games, coupled with the mounting speculation of players from both teams being mentioned in trade talks daily, had all but drained any emotion that the players seemed to play with.
At least, that’s how it looked anyway.
“They had a pretty good start to be honest,” Eric Staal said.
“I thought they were pretty good off the start of the game and it took us a couple of shifts to get goin’, and once we did, we were better. They’re obviously in a tough spot. They’ve lost a lot of games and mentally it looks like its draining for them. We’re not different. We’re in the same boat as them. It’s been tough here, so you maybe saw a little bit of that tonight.”
Netminder Cam Ward made 23 saves to record the win while playing in his 499th career NHL game.
Toronto goalkeeper James Reimer made 24 saves in suffering the loss.
Both teams took turns at warming up each goaltender as Toronto outshot Carolina early on to keep Ward sharp with Nazem Kadri testing him on a backhand to forehand deke attempt that the keeper stopped with his pad.
At the other end, Jiri Tlusty and Jeff Skinner kept Reimer focused as he made impressive pad saves to keep the game scoreless.
A Petter Grandberg cross check to Alexander Semin resulted in Carolina getting a power play opportunity with 7:53 remaining in the opening period.
The Hurricanes’ captain scored his 11th of the season, deflecting a Justin Faulk wrist shot from the point that put Carolina ahead 1-0 at the 13:55 mark.
After gaining the zone, Tlusty passed the puck back to Faulk who had time and space to let the shot go with Staal near the crease to tip it past Reimer, high over his glove hand.
It didn’t take Toronto long to even the score as Brandon Kozun scored his first career NHL goal and tied it up 1-1 with 2:07 remaining in the period.
Kozun had a few swipes at the puck as Ward was out of position after attempting a save on a shot from David Booth that rebounded off the left post and landed on the right side of the crease where the winger stood.
With Carolina forward Brad Malone backchecking and assuming Ward’s spot in the net, attempting to keep the puck out, Kozun managed to slip it past him and provided the Leafs and those supporting them in the stands, some life.
However, it only took 16 seconds for Carolina to regain the lead as Jordan Staal scored his third goal of the season – the eventual game-winner with the assist going to his older brother.
“It’s not easy to score in this league,” Jordan said.
“There’s times when it can get frustrating. I’m sure any player can tell you that. It’s just a matter of doin’ the things that we’re asked and on top of that, trying to find that extra shot to get that goal for yourself.”
“It was a good play,” Eric said when describing the play.
“He went to the net hard, stick on the ice and he was able to pull up and make a play. It was a big goal at the time, following it up right after theirs, and we didn’t need any more the rest of the way.”
Both teams skated to scoreless second and third periods, but each had ample power play opportunities to work with.
Carolina finished 1-for-2 with the man-advantage as a result of Eric’s opening goal while Toronto went scoreless on four power play opportunities without putting one shot on net during any of them.
Toronto’s luck at even strength didn’t bode any better for them, outshooting Carolina 14-12 but still finishing scoreless for the remainder of the game.
“I thought we played down a little bit,” Eric said.
“We weren’t as sharp, as much on our toes as we have been in other games prior. But we still found a way to win, and there’s been plenty of times this year when we’ve found a way to lose. We can feel good about that, but we know that we need to be a little bit better tomorrow.”
Following the game, Carolina packed their bags and prepared to travel to New Jersey to face the Devils on Saturday.