RALEIGH, N.C. -- An air of tension has hung over the Carolina Hurricanes in recent weeks as the team has sunk to the lower reaches of the Eastern Conference standings. So when they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on Sunday night, the reactions ranged from cautious optimism to a bit of gallows humor.
"I get to get on the plane," said coach Paul Maurice, referring to the Hurricanes' flight to Philadelphia for Monday night's game. "We'll go from there. Just try to get on the plane, don't assume anything."
Maurice has been on the hot seat lately as the Hurricanes have fallen to 14th in the East, but a hard-fought win over the Leafs gave the coach and the team some momentary relief.
Jeff Skinner scored the decisive goal in the third period to seal a win that looked in doubt twice down the stretch. Phil Kessel scored both Toronto goals, each time cutting the Hurricanes' lead to one. Kessel leads the NHL with 16 goals and 29 points.
Skinner finished with a goal and an assist, while Eric Staal added two helpers.
"Everyone (in the room) wants to win," Skinner said. "That's the biggest pressure -- the pressure you put on yourself, especially when you're going through something like we've been going through the last few games. It's not fun."
The Hurricanes had lost back-to-back games leading up to Sunday's win. Wednesday night's 4-0 loss at Montreal left general manager Jim Rutherford giving his coach only lukewarm support. A much better effort in a 1-0 home loss to Buffalo on Friday gave the Hurricanes a bit of hope.
"It was hard to keep (our momentum) after our last one," Maurice said. "We knew we had played a solid game, but you have to have something good come from that."
The Maple Leafs (11-8-2), playing the second of back-to-back games, didn't have much jump for most of the night. The injury-ravaged Toronto roster was missing seven regulars.
With the Hurricanes (7-11-3) clinging to a 2-1 lead with less than seven minutes remaining, Carolina defenseman Bryan Allen sprung Staal on a breakaway. Toronto goaltender Ben Scrivens stopped him, but Skinner was there to finish the rebound.
"If you're sitting at 2-1 and both teams have had 10 great chances to score, you're not feeling very good, but we were really good to that point," Maurice said. "The guys recognized that and they just continued to try to do that."
Carolina goaltender Cam Ward, who had lost five of his previous six starts, recorded 23 saves.
Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison opened the scoring with 38 seconds remaining the first period. He fired a low wrist shot from the left circle to beat Scrivens for his second goal of the season. Staal also earned an assist.
The Hurricanes pushed the advantage to 2-0 in the second period on Jussi Jokinen's power-play goal. Carolina defenseman Justin Faulk earned his first NHL point with a nice diagonal pass to Jokinen, whose shot deflected off Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn in front of the net.
"I saw (Chad LaRose) backdoor there," Jokinen said. "Every time you put a puck to the net, it can go in off your guy or their guy. It was a big goal for us."
Less than 24 hours after a dominant 7-1 win at Washington, Toronto looked like a tired team. The Leafs gave up 19 second period shots. The Hurricanes held a commanding 29-12 advantage through 40 minutes.
"I thought we were doing fine in the first period," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "I don't think they had very many scoring chances. But in the second period we didn't have much energy and we didn't work smart."
Toronto showed some life early in the third period. Tim Connolly sent a wrister toward the top shelf, only to have Ward swipe it with his glove. But Kessel finally put Toronto in the scoring column after Carolina's Alexei Ponikarovsky was sent off for elbowing. Kessel cleaned up the rebound of a Dion Phaneuf slap shot from the high slot at the 4:31 mark.
After Skinner extended the lead to 3-1, Kessel scored again with one minute remaining in regulation, with the extra attacker on for Toronto.
For Carolina, the win is a welcome breather after a 3-9-2 stretch. That's why Maurice could have a laugh at his tenuous situation.
"Don't answer your phone and just follow your routine," he said. "That's the key at this point."