Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Mitchell (left) turns to congratulate teammate Lee Stempniak (12) on his goal as Carolina Hurricanes centre Matt Cullen (8) and right winger Jerome Samson (67) react during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday January 12, 2010.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
TORONTO - The silence that hung in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room spoke volumes about another season that seems to be slipping away.
The Maple Leafs had just put up twice as many shots as the 30th-place Carolina Hurricanes and were largely at a loss to explain how they found themselves on the losing end of a 4-2 game Tuesday. It was the team's fourth straight defeat and it brought them even closer to the NHL basement.
Frustration has clearly set in.
"I don't have much to say," said Leafs forward Phil Kessel, stuck on just one goal in 13 games. "We're not playing good enough. It's a number of things. We've got to be better."
The 2010 first-round draft pick Toronto sent to Boston in exchange for Kessel is starting to look better and better for the Bruins. Last-place Carolina is now within four points of the Maple Leafs and holds two games in hand.
If the season ended today, that draft pick would be a good one - to say nothing of the other selections (second round in 2010, first round in 2011) the Bruins acquired in the Kessel deal.
Of course, that's of little concern for the Maple Leafs players that have had trouble scoring during a recent swoon despite going an amazing 15 games without being outshot. The team is 4-9-2 during that stretch.
"You can't win many games with only one or two goals," said forward Lee Stempniak.
A third goal would have done the trick on Tuesday.
With the game tied 2-2, the Leafs poured it on in the third period, directing 15 shots at Cam Ward. They even got one behind him - only to have Niklas Hagman's shot rang off the post.
Moments later, Patrick Dwyer scored the winner for Carolina by tipping the puck past Jonas Gustavsson with 4:26 left in regulation.
"This game, an inch here and inch there, that's all it takes," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
Eric Staal, Brandon Sutter and Ray Whitney also had goals for Carolina (14-24-7), which has just four road wins in 22 games.
Stempniak and Nikolai Kulemin replied for the Maple Leafs (15-23-9).
The teams seem to be heading in opposite directions. Suddenly, the Hurricanes are starting to feel good about themselves after putting together their first three-game win streak of the season.
It's long overdue for last year's Eastern Conference finalists.
"It's just a matter of coming to the rink and competing," said Ward, who had 38 saves. "It's finally time that we found ways to win. Even though the game wasn't exactly the greatest game, we found ways to battle through it at key times in the game."
The game was as sloppy as you'd expect from the 28th-and 30th-ranked teams, although the Leafs managed to create far more scoring chances than the visitors and deserved a better fate.
The same can be said of Kessel, who had more quality chances among his six shots on goal. Wilson intends to remind the sniper that he's been coming close.
"He wants to score more than anybody," said Wilson. "That's a special art he has. When you're not doing it, you internalize it and beat yourself up."
Kessel did seem to have some chemistry with Tyler Bozak, who was summoned from the minors for the second game of his NHL career. The 23-year-old centred the top line for some of the night and earned an assist.
He could sense the frustration.
"(We're) a little snake-bitten," said Bozak.
Toronto seemed to be in control of the game during the second period, buoyed a beautiful Kulemin goal that put it ahead 2-1. However, Sutter tied the game just over six minutes later and the Leafs couldn't find a way to score on Ward.
"He played good," Gustavsson said of his counterpart. "For some reason all the goalies play their best games against us."
The struggles are nothing new to a franchise that seems destined to miss the playoffs for a fifth straight year. Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice was behind the Toronto bench for two of those seasons and knows all about the pressure the team is currently under.
After watching his new squad beat the Leafs for the second time this season, he noted how much easier things were from the other side: "That was the most relaxed press conference I've had here," joked Maurice.
Notes: The Leafs scratched forward Rickard Wallin for the 13th time ... Carolina is missing six regulars from its lineup due to injury: Tuomo Ruutu (upper body), Sergei Samsonov (upper body), Scott Walker (shoulder surgery), Chad LaRose (lower body), Erik Cole (upper body), Joe Corvo (leg) ... Gustavsson started for the fifth time in six games ... Curtis Joseph was given a standing ovation on the day he announced his retirement ... Announced attendance was 19,120.