Phil Kessel scores a pair as Leafs prep for winter Classic by beating Carolina - InfoNews

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Phil Kessel scores a pair as Leafs prep for winter Classic by beating Carolina

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
December 29, 2013 - 6:50 PM

TORONTO - Phil Kessel scored twice, reaching the 20-goal plateau for the sixth straight season, to help the Toronto Maple Leafs defeat the Carolina Hurricanes 5-2 in NHL play Sunday.

The speedy Leafs sniper could have had more on the night, missing on two breakaways.

Nikolai Kulemin, Paul Ranger and Dion Phaneuf, with an empty-net goal with eight seconds remaining, also scored for Toronto, which won despite something of a Jekyll and Hyde performance.

Nathan Gerbe and Justin Faulk replied for Carolina (14-16-9), which has not won in five games — a stretch that included two overtime defeats.

Jonathan Bernier made 41 saves as Carolina outshot Toronto 43-27 before a crowd of 19,452 at the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs were loose on defence and were fortunate the Hurricanes did not punish them more.

The game marked the halfway point of the season for Toronto (20-16-5) and was its last outing before Wednesday's outdoor Winter Classic against Detroit before an expected crowd of 100,000-plus at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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.

Still Toronto coach Randy Carlyle changed up his top line on the power play as the game wore on, with Joffrey Lupul and Kessel flanking James Van Riemsdyk.

Leafs forward David Clarkson went to the dressing room in the second period after apparently hitting the boards, but returned in the third healthy enough to smash Tuomo Ruutu to the ice.

The Leafs' previous four games were shootouts — a club-record streak that featured two wins and two losses.

Coming into the game, Carolina had only won one of its last eight outings (a stretch that featured four OT 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 11 more times in the first two periods.

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.

A power play helped put the Leafs in the shot column and gradually Toronto began to spend some time in the Carolina end.

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.

Seconds after opening the scoring Sunday, Kessel had a chance to increase the lead on a breakaway but was stopped by Ward.

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.

It was the sixth point in six games for the five-foot-five Gerbe.

Ward robbed an onrushing Kessel again in the second period, with Nazem Kadri unable to put away the rebound.

Carolina's Manny Malhotra hit the goalpost midway through the second period as Toronto found itself penned in in its own end.

Toronto then pulled ahead with two goals in 76 seconds.

A pretty passing play between Kessel and 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 3-2, prompting Carolina coach Kirk 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 Leafs defenceman's second goal of the season and the 100th point of his NHL career.

Ward's start in the Carolina goal was only his second since Dec. 10. Justin Peters had started five of the last six.

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.

The Hurricanes have a history of doing well against the Leafs. They had won 17 of the last 24 meetings, including five in overtime/shootout, prior to Sunday.

The Hurricanes' career record in Toronto was 28-18-7 prior to Sunday.

Plus Carolina has not lost a season series to the Leafs since 2006-07.

The teams wrap up their-three game set in Carolina on Jan. 9.

Former Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek, who saw limited action with Carolina at the start of the season, was in the Hurricanes' lineup. Forward Jiri Tlusty, another former Leaf, is facing a three-week absence after an appendectomy.

NOTES — The return of Bozak prompted the Leafs to assign forward Jerred Smithson to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. ... Sunday marked Eric Staal's 730th game for the Hurricanes, tying Glen Wesley for most games played since the franchise relocated to Carolina from Hartford.

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Follow Neil Davidson on Twitter at @NeilMDavidson

News from © The Canadian Press, 2013
The Canadian Press

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