TORONTO (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes had a lot on the line entering Tuesday’s game against Toronto in their dash for a playoff spot.
The Maple Leafs didn’t — and it certainly showed.
Justin Williams and Dougie Hamilton each banked in goals from behind Toronto’s net as the Hurricanes picked up two big points in the Eastern Conference wild-card race with a 4-1 victory over the listless Leafs.
“It’s exciting,” said Hamilton, who also added an empty-netter. “We’ve been playing playoff hockey for a while now.”
Jordan Staal also scored and Petr Mrazek stopped 23 shots for Carolina, which came in having lost three of its past four in regulation as the franchise looks to make the postseason for the first time since 2009 — currently the NHL’s longest streak of playoff futility.
The Hurricanes, who were 27th in the overall standings at the end of December, moved into the East’s first wild-card spot, a point up on both the Columbus Blue Jackets and ninth-place Montreal Canadiens.
Columbus lost 6-2 to the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, while Montreal beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2. All three teams battling for the East’s two wild-card berths have two games left on the schedule.
“We’ve had a good stretch,” Hamilton added. “Hopefully we can keep going for two more games and see where that takes us.”
John Tavares scored his 47th goal of the season for Toronto. Garret Sparks made 33 saves.
The Leafs clinched a playoff spot for a third consecutive spring with Monday’s 2-1 road victory over the New York Islanders to set up a second-straight first-round matchup with the Bruins.
Playing its third game in four nights, Toronto entered four points back of Boston for second in the Atlantic Division, and home ice in the opening round, but is now guaranteed to start on the road at TD Garden following Tuesday’s results.
“We were just a little sluggish to start coming off (Monday) and obviously (playing) a team that was extremely desperate,” Tavares said. “We just have to be at a better level than we were to start.”
Toronto fell behind 2-0 at 2:13 of the second period on a Carolina power play with Martin Marincin in the box for interference. Sparks made a desperation save on Hamilton at the side of the crease, but the Hurricanes defenseman managed to bank his follow-up effort off the netminder’s right leg from below the goal line — Carolina’s second from behind the Leafs’ net — for the Toronto native’s 17th of the season.
The crowd jeered the home side’s first shot of the period, and third of the game, less than four minutes into the second, but the Leafs would eventually get on the board when Tavares buried his own rebound on a man advantage at 10:55 to add to his career-high goal and point totals.
Patrick Marleau tipped a shot just wide of Carolina’s goal five minutes into the third as Toronto started to push before Mrazek robbed both William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen on point-blank chances.
But the Hurricanes hemmed the Leafs into their own zone midway through the period, with Staal firing a wrist shot from the high slot for his 10th to make it 3-1 at 9:36.
“Clean shot,” Sparks said. “Gotta make the save.”
Hamilton then added his second into an empty net with under a minute to play for his career-high 18th.
“Big points,” Staal said. “They’ve got some talented players. They created a few chances and Mrazek was there for us.”
Sparks, who got the nod after Andersen made 28 saves in Monday’s victory, struggled on Carolina’s opener in the first for the lethargic Leafs.
Tavares won a defensive zone draw, but Williams beat Ron Hainsey to the puck and swept a one-handed effort from below the goal line that somehow got between the netminder’s skate and the near post for his 23rd.
“It came to the wrong spot — exactly where I didn’t need it to go,” Sparks said. “It’s just a tough bounce.”
Lucas Wallmark had a down-and-out Sparks at his mercy earlier in the period, but rang a shot off the iron.
Toronto appeared to go ahead 1-0 when Nylander took a pass from Auston Matthews and beat Mrazek on a 2-on-1 rush at 15:01, but the Hurricanes correctly challenged for offside.
The Leafs’ two shots in the opening 20 minutes matched their season low in a first period, something that didn’t surprise Toronto coach Mike Babcock, considering what was on the line for both teams.
“It was a different level of emotional engagement,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a big surprise for anybody who’s a human being.”
NOTES: Curtis McElhinney, whom the Leafs lost to the Hurricanes before the season in favor of keeping Sparks, dressed as Carolina’s backup. The veteran McElhinney is 19-11-2 this season with a 2.57 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Sparks, 10 years McElhinney’s junior, came into Tuesday 8-8-1 with a 3.15 GAA and a .901 save percentage. … Tavares has 88 points, just two back of Mitch Marner’s 90 for the team lead. … Andersen is scheduled to start Thursday’s visit by Tampa and Saturday’s regular-season finale in Montreal. … Boston beat Toronto in seven games in last year’s playoffs. … Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin (undisclosed) and winger Andreas Johnsson (illness) sat out for Toronto. Johnsson also missed Monday’s game. Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner (back) is expected to suit up for the first time since Feb. 27 on Thursday.
Hurricanes: Host New Jersey on Thursday night.
Maple Leafs: Host Tampa Bay on Thursday night.
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