RALEIGH, N.C. -- For most of the past month, the Carolina Hurricanes have played a quality brand of hockey, even if they were only treading water in the standings.
There were four overtime losses in a seven-game span that seemed to hint better days were on the horizon. Now, after a decisive 6-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night, the team has won five straight.
"We were definitely building on something," said Jordan Staal, who led the way Thursday with a shorthanded goal and three assists. "You could tell we were in every game. It was just a matter of finding that extra swagger and burying teams."
The Hurricanes (19-16-9) did just that against a Maple Leafs team looking for answers. Toronto (21-19-5) has lost three straight and has been outscored 18-5 during the skid.
There were several uplifting story lines for the Hurricanes on Thursday, beginning with Zach Boychuk. The former first-round pick, who has spent most of his six professional seasons in the American Hockey League, put the Hurricanes on the scoreboard with a backhander in the first period and later set up a pretty 2-on-1 goal.
"Always in a call-up situation, you want to make an impression," said Boychuk, who was claimed off waivers last season by both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators. "The first few games I was able to do that, but at the same time, you want to get that goal and get that extra level. There's guys coming back from injury and some decisions to be made, but I want to do everything I can to stay and be a go-to guy."
The player on the receiving end of Boychuk's assist was defenseman John-Michael Liles, acquired eight days ago in a trade that sent veteran blueliner Tim Gleason to the Maple Leafs. Liles scored his first of the season just the way a recently traded player would hope -- against his former team.
"Any goal is great. It doesn't matter who it's against," Liles said. "But this is pretty near a high point, that's for sure."
The Hurricanes threatened to finish off Toronto in the first period. Jeff Skinner followed Boychuk with a power-play goal, his 17th goal in the past 17 games and 21st overall, to put Carolina ahead 2-0.
Toronto forward Joffrey Lupul cut the lead in half, taking a centering pass from Mason Raymond and banging it in from the left post at 14:14. But the Hurricanes answered quickly. With Toronto scrambling in its own end, Patrick Dwyer grabbed a loose puck and sent it in through traffic and into the net at 17:33 for a 3-1 lead.
Despite Carolina's three-goal outburst, Toronto goalie James Reimer was sharp in the first period, stopping a half-dozen quality chances to keep his team in the game.
After Liles extended the lead to 4-1 in the second period, Staal started the third by blasting a hard shot over Reimer's glove at the 35-second mark. With three assists, Staal easily put together his best offensive game in two seasons with Carolina.
"It's nice to get the points," said Staal, who has five goals and 14 points in the past 15 games after a slow start. "Some nights it doesn't quite go for me, so it's always nice to have them go my way."
Rookie Elias Lindholm, fresh off a silver medal for Sweden in the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, scored the final goal of the night and added a pair of first-period assists in his first NHL game since Dec. 12.
Scoring nine points in six games on the world stage was nice, but Lindholm was itching to get back to Carolina.
"I'm glad to be back and play with these guys again," Lindholm said. "It's where I want to be, with the best guys in the world. They helped out real good tonight. They made it real easy for me."
In the Toronto dressing room, the mood was gloomy. After a night of sloppy play, the Leafs vowed to find answers.
"Ultimately, it has to come from within our group here and our effort needs to be better," Raymond said. "Every player can give more, including myself. It's a cliché, but we're the only ones who are going to get ourselves out of this mess."
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle was disappointed in the poor defensive effort in front of Reimer, who faced 36 shots.
"Right now we are getting a performance that isn't anywhere close to what is required to give ourselves success," Carlyle said. "Our goaltenders are strung out and left hanging high and dry from the quality scoring chances, and they are coming from that critical area. We can't continue to give those chances up."
For Liles, the timing of the trade couldn't have been better.
"Guys are believing in the message that the staff is giving to us," he said. "I think the atmosphere in the room is great. We have a really good core of leaders. Maybe they're not the most vocal, but when guys say things, it's the right thing at the right time."
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