Toronto Maple Leafs Andrew Raycroft deflects a shot during first period NHL action against the Carolina Hurricanes in Toronto Tuesday. (CP/Adrian Wyld)
When the Hurricanes signed autographs in the hockey shrine Monday afternoon, video showed them winning the Stanley Cup last June. Goaltender Cam Ward said he and his teammates got so pumped up that they wanted to rush to a rink and play a game right away.
They had to wait a day, but beating the Leafs was well worth the wait.
"It was an exciting time for everybody to be able to go there," Ward said of the visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame. "I think it got everybody fired up."
Ward was outstanding with a 29-save effort and Scott Walker, Eric Belanger, Eric Staal and Justin Williams scored as the Hurricanes flashed championship form.
Bryan McCabe scored for the Leafs, and Andrew Raycroft made 25 saves.
The Leafs, already missing five forwards, lost Ian White in the second period when the defenceman injured his left shoulder.
The Hurricanes remained tied with Ottawa for fifth place in the NHL's Eastern Conference, each with 48 points, while the Leafs, with 44 points, fell out of the top eight - and they now face the toughest segment of their schedule with nine of their next 11 games on the road beginning Thursday in Buffalo.
"If we're playing .500 hockey halfway through the season, obviously we're not playing good enough," said captain Mats Sundin. "We have a lot of things we have to improve on."
McCabe got his ninth goal of the season, and the only goal of the first period, by blowing a slap shot past Ward at 15:24.
"We weren't very happy with the first period," Ward said afterwards. "We were fortunate to get away with only being down one goal."
Coach Peter Laviolette reminded his skaters between periods to dump the puck deep into Toronto's end.
"They have some D-men who play a lot of minutes and we had to make them work - go back and get the puck," said defencemen Mike Commodore. "It's no fun.
"We got the puck deep and started skating. Our strength is our forwards. That's no secret. They got moving, and (the Leafs) took some penalties and we scored some goals."
Walker swung at a flying puck as if he were a baseball player and got his 13th goal 1:51 into the second period.
"We've had a couple of those against us this year, where they beat us to the puck, throw it at the net and bat it out of the air," lamented the Leafs' Chad Kilger.
Ben Ondrus was assessed a boarding penalty 33 seconds later when he hit Andrew Ladd from behind, and Carolina grabbed a 2-1 lead on the power play when Belanger deflected in a Rod Brind'Amour slap shot at 2:51 for his eighth goal.
"We were our own worst enemy," said McCabe.
White was injured with five minutes left in the period when he crashed into a corner with Chad LaRose as the two chased a puck.
Staal made it 3-1 at 18:17, with the Leafs again two men short, when he beat Raycroft with a slap shot for his 19th.
"They capitalized on their chances," said Sundin. "They're an experienced team and once they were up they just kind of sat back."
The Hurricanes' close checking ensured the announced crowd of 19,447 had little to cheer about in the closing 20 minutes. Some booed the Leafs. It was a gritty performance by the Hurricanes, who were without four injured defencemen. The 'Canes know how to protect a lead: they were 15-0-0 when leading after two periods.
"They played a couple extra months last season for a reason," said Kilger.
Ward was just as good as he was in earning playoff MVP honours last spring, and his teammates played smart. They took only two minor penalties in the game.
Williams got an empty-netter with 16 seconds left for his 21st goal.
Make that 16-0-0 when leading after two.
Ward, 22, is in his first NHL season as Carolina's No. 1 goalie from Game 1.
"I'm enjoying every minute of it," said the Saskatoon-born netminder. "Just to be in the NHL is a dream come true.
"You don't take this time for granted because who knows how long it'll last. You got enjoy every minute and do the best that you can."
His teammates sure enjoy every minute he's been in their nets.
"Cam has played well all year and it was no different tonight," said Commodore. "When we got down, he made some big saves and kept us in it."
Laviolette says that what he likes most about the way Ward plays is that he rarely gives up a bad goal.
"He's been steady," said Laviolette. "He's been in control of his crease and he's given us a chance to be successful.
"We haven't been great in front of him but he's been pretty consistent with his game."
Carolina has won two in a row after a bumpy stretch.
"We're showing positives," said Ward. "We're doing a lot better at keeping it simple in our defensive zone.
"As long as you play good defence, you'll generate offence. We weren't scoring for a bit there but we knew we had the skill and the tools in the locker room. It was just a matter of creating some traffic, taking some long shots, and going for the rebounds."
Notes: On power plays, Carolina was 2-for-6 and Toronto was 0-for-2 ... The Hurricanes hadn't won in Air Canada Centre since Feb. 23, 2004 ... The Leafs were without forwards Mike Peca (broken leg), Darcy Tucker (foot), Kyle Wellwood (groin), Alexei Ponikarovsky (shoulder) and Nike Antropov (sprained ankle) ... The Hurricanes were without defencemen Glen Wesley (lower body), Bret Hedican (finger surgery), Tim Gleason (broken foot) and Frantisek Kaberle (shoulder surgery) ... The Leafs entered the game ranked fifth in the league in power-play efficiency (46 goals in 232 attemtps, 19.8 per cent) and 18th in penalty killing (44 goals allowed in 234 short-handed situations, 81.2 per cent) ... D Dennis Seidenberg, acquired Monday from Phoenix for F Kevyn Adams, played his first game for Carolina. He was in Dallas with the Coyotes when he was advised of the trade. He had to fly to Phoenix to pick up his passport - he's German - and took a red-eye flight that landed him in Toronto at 7 a.m. ... Former Leafs coach Tom Watt is a regular at Leafs home games working as a pro scout for the Florida Panthers ... Pat Verbeek was in to scout for the Detroit Red Wings.