Toronto Maple Leafs Phil Kessel (left) is congratulated by Carl Gunnarsson after scoring the Leafs\' second goal against Carolina Hurricanes during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday December 28, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs' travel odyssey ended in defeat Tuesday.
Patrick Dwyer scored the game-winner with just over five minutes remaining in regulation to lift the Hurricanes to a 4-3 victory over the Maple Leafs.
Eric Staal, with his 17th and 18th goals of the season, and Jeff Skinner also scored for the Hurricanes (16-15-4), who snapped a three-game losing streak.
After beating the Devils in New Jersey on Boxing Day, the Maple Leafs (13-18-4) found themselves caught in the middle of a major winter storm.
What was supposed to be a day trip to New Jersey ended up including five hours on a bus Sunday night and five more on the runway Monday, before flying home Tuesday morning.
Although they wouldn't admit it, the delays couldn't have helped.
"We looked sharp all game, the guys skated well," said Toronto goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who made 23 saves in the loss. "(Carolina) looked more tired then we looked most of the time."
Dwyer's winner at 14:49 of the third came off a scramble in front of Gustavsson that turned into a point shot that the Carolina winger tipped home.
The game began fast and furious with five goals in the final 13 minutes of the first period, with Staal burying his pair.
"(Staal) in the first period really took it upon himself to make some dominating plays and he's a guy who's capable of doing that," said Carolina goaltender Cam Ward, who stopped 34 of the 37 shots.
Toronto's Phil Kessel also scored twice in the first—his 13th and 14th of the season—but Ward was quick to point out Carolina keyed in on him afterwards.
"Kessel had a little bit of jump in his step," Ward said. "When he got that first goal you could tell he was starting to feel a little confidence."
Kessel's first goal came during a 5-on-3 power play at the 11:48 mark, less than five minutes after Skinner made it 1-0.
Staal made it 2-1 at 14:08 when he stole the puck from John Mitchell in the Carolina zone and moved in on Gustavsson.
Kessel tied the game for the second time in 3:42 off some nice forechecking by Tyler Bozak and recent call-up Joey Crabb before Staal restored Carolina's lead on the power play with 10 seconds to play in the period.
Mikhail Grabovski added a power-play goal of his own in the second period to again tie it at 3-3 when a tipped puck landed on his stick in front.
But that was all the Maple Leafs could manage in the second, despite thoroughly outplaying the Hurricanes.
"We were unlucky on a couple of bounces," Gustavsson said. "So, of course, if we had a lead after two, then maybe we would have won the game. But that's the way it is. We did a good job and if we play like this then we'll win a lot of games."
Added Toronto head coach Ron Wilson: "We had a great second period where we absolutely dominated, I think we out-chanced them 13-1."
The game ended with some controversy after Grabovski was sent flying with what appeared to be a slew foot in the Carolina end with the Hurricanes facing a 6-on-4 situation.
The Maple Leafs, who host Columbus on Thursday before heading to Ottawa for a New Year's Day clash, can take solace in knowing that they fought the odds and almost came out on top.
"Things happen during the game and you have to battle through," Wilson said. "Lord knows we've had enough adversity in the last 40 hours or so, but our team, I thought, played very well.
"We played hard tonight, we just didn't win."
Notes: Tomas Kaberle added to his Leafs-leading points total versus Carolina, he now has 29 in 40 career games. ... Crabb's assist on Kessel's second goal was his first point as a Maple Leaf. ... Attendance at Air Canada Centre was 19,309.