The Toronto Maple Leafs continued their path towards the bottom of the standings with a 2-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC on Friday. Eric and Jordan Staal scored for the Canes, who move to within two points of Toronto in the overall NHL standings with the victory and completed a three game sweep of the season series.
Rookie Brandon Kozun scored the lone goal for the Leafs, who have gone 4-22-2 since the Hurricanes ended their six-game winning streak in mid-December. Toronto remains winless on the road in 2015 and lost their fifth straight since ending an 11 game losing streak against Edmonton on February 7.
The contest between a pair of the league’s bottom dwellers was expectedly mundane, as all the scoring occurred in the opening 20 minutes. The Hurricanes opened the scoring at 13:55 on the power play, as Justin Faulk’s point shot was deflected by the elder Staal past Toronto goalie James Reimer. The Leafs tied the game late in the first, as Kozun hit the post behind Carolina’s Cam Ward and forward Brad Malone’s skate before finally shoveling the puck over the goal line for his first career NHL goal.
As has been the case throughout the last two months, the Leafs displayed their uncanny ability to snuff out their own momentum, as former Toronto first rounder Jiri Tlusty combined with the Staal brothers for the younger Stall’s game-winner 16 seconds after Kozun’s tying tally. The Leafs showed little effort in the final two periods, registering just 12 shots on Ward and not managing a shot on goal during four chances with the power play.
“It felt good. It’s something you work for your entire life.” the speedy Kozun said about scoring in his 8th career NHL game. “To get a chance to do that was pretty special but on the other hand, it would have been nicer if we won.”
Toronto completes their weekend back-to-back games against the Winnipeg Jets at Air Canada Center on Saturday. The Jets are in the midst of a heated race for a Western Conference playoff spot and currently hold the top wild card spot with 70 points, but have San Jose, Los Angeles and Minnesota within four points and are looking to rebound after a 5-1 loss to Washington on Thursday.
Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler did not practice in Toronto on Friday, but Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice indicated that all three will likely be in the lineup against the Leafs. The only expected lineup change for the Leafs is the return of winger Joffrey Lupul in place of Kozun, who played a team-low 5:20 vs Carolina. Lupul missed four games with the re-aggravation of a knee injury suffered in Boston on December 31.
Defenseman Andrew MacWilliam was returned to the AHL Toronto Marlies on Saturday after being recalled on an emergency basis on Thursday.
Michael Hutchinson will get the start in goal for the Jets and Jonathan Bernier will go for Toronto.
The Leafs have a four-day break between Saturday’s contest and their match against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday and play on both weekend nights leading up to the March 2nd trade deadline.
Reports are that Toronto will wait to move pending UFA forward Daniel Winnik until the eleventh hour to maximize the return for the 29-year-old forward, whose low salary and abilities as a depth forward/penalty killer make him an attractive commodity to clubs with little cap room. It is possible that Toronto will deal Winnik prior to Thursday or hold the veteran winger out of weekend road games against Montreal and Washington to prevent injury.
For David Booth, Korbinian Holzer, Olli Jokinen and most players on the Leafs roster, the games leading up to March 2nd provide a final opportunity to showcase their skills to perspective interested clubs. GM Dave Nonis may be willing to be inventive to bring much needed assets back in possible deals, including retaining salary to get a pick back for Jokinen($2.5 Million cap hit) or to move a veteran with term to a contending team(Lupul, Roman Polak, Tyler Bozak).
TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Winnipeg remains highly interested in Winnik, which could motivate GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to pay the Leafs asking price of a 2nd round pick and lower pick/prospect after losing forward Mathieu Perreault to injury for the rest of the regular season. Dreger indicated on TSN 1050 Radio on Friday that Toronto may have interest the rights to former Jets first rounder Alex Burmistrov.
The 23-year-old Burmistrov bolted from the Jets to the KHL following the end of the 2013 season after clashing with former head coach Claude Noel and is rumored to be looking to return to North America after two seasons with Ak-Bars Kazan.
The Fourth Period
reports that Carolina Hurricanes have received inquiries from the Maple Leafs, Vancouver and Anaheim on speedy forward Jeff Skinner(who is signed until 2018-19 at $5.75 Million per season), but that a move is not expected until the off-season.
The 22-year-old Skinner has scored 30 goals twice in five NHL seasons, but has just13 goals in 52 games this season and could be moves as part of an organizational reset in Carolina under new GM Ron Francis.
McEichel Race – Points(Games Played)
8. OTTAWA 56(56) 7. COLUMBUS 55(56) 6. NEW JERSEY 55(58), 5. TORONTO 51(59), 4. CAROLINA 49(57), 3. ARIZONA 47(58), 2. EDMONTON 44(60), 1. BUFFALO 38(59)
Current Leafs odds at winning Draft Lottery(8.5%)
Friday's results: New Jersey wins over Vancouver and moves four points ahead of Toronto with a game in hand, Carolina’s win moves the Hurricanes to within two points of the Leafs with two games in hand.
It appears that Toronto is likely to finish no lower than the 8th pick. Colorado(10 point lead) and Philadelphia(8 point lead) have played the same amount of games and would be tough to catch even if the Leafs start to win. Ottawa(5 point lead) and Columbus(4 point lead) each have three games in hand.
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