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Hurricanes 4, Maple Leafs 3 @NHL

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Of all the impressive numbers put up so far by the Carolina Hurricanes, the one that makes coach Peter Laviolette happiest is a zero.

Erik Cole scored the winner with 1:34 left in regulation, Eric Staal regained sole possession of the NHL scoring lead and the Hurricanes stayed unbeaten at home with a 4-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Staal had two goals and an assist to move in front of Ottawa teammates Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson with 25 points in 12 games. Cole added an assist as Carolina improved to 6-0 at home and extended the best start in franchise history.

"We're trying to hold on to that zero as long as we can," Laviolette said. "We've got to fight for that."

Staal nearly had his second hat trick in three games with an empty-net goal in the final seconds, but Cole was called for diving moments earlier.

No matter. The Hurricanes (9-2-1) have earned at least one point in nine games in a row and spoiled the "homecoming" of Toronto's Jeff O'Neill. He played the previous seven seasons with Carolina - plus two in Hartford before the team moved south - and finished with only one shot in 16 minutes of ice time in his return.

O'Neill left without speaking with reporters. Alexander Steen had a pair of goals and an assist for the Maple Leafs, who lost for the third time in four games. Matt Stajan had a goal and an assist.

"We can't win games like that at the end, and if we think we can, we're fooling ourselves," Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn said. "In the last 10 minutes, they didn't pick anything up, we just gave them a lot of room. Our forwards didn't much in the offensive zone except get caught."

Toronto took a 3-2 lead early in the third period on Steen's second goal, set up beautifully by Jason Allison. He brought the puck from behind the net and fought off a double-team by Cole and Bret Hedican to feed Steen, and his quick shot beat Cam Ward.

The Hurricanes are used to playing from behind, however. In their previous four victories, they trailed by two goals at various point, so the smaller deficit proved to be no problem. Staal tied it by stuffing in a rebound after Cole redirected Whitney's shot, gliding in from the blue to give Carolina its second power-play goal.

"I'm not thinking to much now," Staal said. "That's the key. Don't think, just play. That's what my linemates are telling me, anyway."

The first power-play goal came on a two-man advantage in the second period to break a 1-1 tie. Whitney, who now has points in each of his six games this season, tried to pass across the crease to Cory Stillman, but Aki Berg blocked it right back to him with his skate.

This time, Whitney put the puck on goal and it squirted by Ed Belfour to give the Hurricanes a rare second-period advantage.

"They do have a good skating hockey club," Toronto center Eric Lindros said. "And we did have a lead. We can't play pingpong with that team. We didn't do a good job in that regard."

The Maple Leafs made it 3-3 with a short-handed goal. Steen sneaked by Staal to take a pass right in front of Cam Ward, and knocked it in.

Notes: Toronto captain Mats Sundin traveled with the team to Raleigh but didn't dress a day after returning to the ice for practice. After taking a puck to the eye on opening night, he missed his 12th game Thursday night. Sundin hopes to return this weekend. ... Carolina D Aaron Ward took a hard hit from Lindros in the final seconds and left the ice slowly. Lindros received a major penalty for boarding.

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