Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier (right) and two goal scorer Phil Kessel celebrate after their 5-2 win over Carolina Hurricanes in NHL hockey action in Toronto on Sunday December 29, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
TORONTO - While his players and Leaf Nation might be looking forward to Wednesday's Winter Classic against Detroit, Toronto coach Randy Carlyle is playing the role of Scrooge when it comes to the holiday season outdoor game.
"I wasn't waving the pom-poms to be involved with it to start with," Carlyle said after a 5-2 win over Carolina on Sunday night. "It's been a trying time.
"Specifically we haven't played as well as we'd like to hang our hat on. Our group, we believe, has got lots of room to grow, so that always put added pressure on. And then you're much more under the microscope if you can believe it. We're under the microscope with you (media) guys alone and then you add the element of HBO and then the event, there's a lot of factors.
"Again we're here to win hockey games and that's the most important thing and our focus is going to be on the game."
Friends and family will be enjoying the event more than the actual participants, he suggested.
The Leafs (20-16-5) head to Ann Arbor, Mich., on a winning note and having picked up points in their last five games. But they needed a pair of goals from sniper Phil Kessel, solid goaltending from Jonathan Bernier and a few lucky bounces to dispose of the Hurricanes before a crowd of 19,452 at the Air Canada Centre.
Carolina (14-16-9) outshot Toronto 43-27 on the night, only to see its winless streak stretch to five games.
The Hurricanes have won only one of their last nine outings (a stretch that has featured four OT losses).
"We had enough chances to win a hockey game," lamented Carolina coach Kirk Muller. "The chances were there. They scored and we didn't."
Carlyle agreed it had been a loose performance from the Leafs.
"I thought at times we seemed like we were overmatched in a lot of areas," he said.
The Hurricanes followed a popular, simple strategy against Toronto—dumping the puck in and forcing the Leafs to play defence.
"We haven't been able to handle that or manage the game properly in that area and we have to get better at it," Carlyle said.
Kessel's second goal allowed him to reach the 20-goal plateau for the sixth straight season and he could have had more on the night, missing on two breakaways.
Toronto also got goals from Nikolai Kulemin, Paul Ranger and Dion Phaneuf, with an empty-net goal with eight seconds remaining.
Nathan Gerbe and Justin Faulk replied for Carolina.
Centre Tyler Bozak returned to the Leafs' top line after a 12-game absence due to an oblique injury. He showed off some of his playmaking skills with three assists and made an important backcheck, snuffing out a Hurricanes threat.
The Leafs were loose on defence and were fortunate the Hurricanes did not punish them more.
"We had some lapses in the D-zone," said Bozak. "We got some good bounces as well ... The puck was kind of following us around tonight."
The game marked the halfway point of the season for Toronto, while setting the table for playing in front of an expected crowd of 100,000-plus at the Big House.
"It's going to be a pretty cool event," said Bozak. "I know most guys have lots of family here, including me. I'm excited to get to Detroit and see what it's all about."
Added Ranger: "I think it's going to be fun ... Backyard rinks, that's where I spent most of my childhood. It's just a bigger backyard rink."
Leafs forward David Clarkson went to the dressing room in the second period to have his elbow stitched up but returned in the third healthy enough to smash Tuomo Ruutu to the ice.
"Probably the best period of hockey he's played for us," said Carlyle.
The Leafs' previous four games were shootouts—a club-record streak that featured two wins and two losses.
After surviving a horrendous start against Buffalo to win via a shootout Friday, it seemed like more of the same Sunday for the Leafs.
Leading the league in giveaways with 475 going into the game, Toronto coughed it up 15 more times against the Hurricanes.
Toronto also did not manage a shot on net until 11-plus minutes into a first period that saw the Leafs wobble at times in their own end. Bernier seemed the lone defender on duty and Toronto was lucky not to go down.
The Leafs went ahead after a faceoff when Bozak dug the puck out to Kessel, whose backhand from behind the goal-line somehow went in off goalie Cam Ward for his 19th of the season at 16:56.
It was perhaps payback for the freak goal that gave the Hurricanes a 3-2 win in Toronto in October when a bad bounce off the boards on a shoot-in bounced in off Bernier with the Leafs thinking icing might be called.
The five-foot-five Gerbe tied it up at 1:36 of the second period after talking a pass from Alexander Semin in the corner and beating Bernier from near the faceoff dot. Semin outmanoeuvred Jake Gardiner to set up Gerbe's ninth goal.
Toronto pulled ahead with two goals in 76 seconds in the second period.
A pretty passing play between Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk made it 2-1 at 13:42 with JVR unselfishly sending the puck back to Kessel from in-close.
Kulemin then beat Ward with a shot from the top of the circle at 14:58 to make it 3-1, prompting Muller to call a timeout in a bid to stop the bleeding. It was Kulemin's fifth of the season.
A four-on-three helped the Carolina cause with Faulk scoring his third of the season on a slap shot with 2:17 remaining in the period to close the gap to 3-2.
Ranger added an insurance goal at 4:58 of the third, firing a low shot through traffic that eluded Ward for the defenceman's second goal of the season and the 100th point of his NHL career.
For Toronto, it was Bernier's 28th appearance of the season, compared to 18 for James Reimer.
Bernier has started nine of the last 15 games, with Reimer pulled during two of his six starts during that stretch.
Carlyle refused to interpret the numbers when asked what it meant that Bernier had started three straight.
"He's played three straight games. That what it says."
Follow Neil Davidson on Twitter at @NeilMDavidson