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Hurricanes look to make up ground on Maple Leafs

by John McGourty
HURRICANES (13-24-7) at MAPLE LEAFS (15-22-9)

Last 10 --
Carolina 5-4-1; Toronto 2-6-2

Season series --
This is the third meeting between the teams this season. The Hurricanes blew a two-goal lead and lost, 3-2, on Nov. 6 in Raleigh for their 11th-straight loss. Carolina trailed by three goals on Nov. 19 but rallied on two goals by Tim Gleason, four assists by Tuomo Ruutu and Erik Cole's goal with 2.9 seconds remaining that forced overtime before winning 6-5 in a shootout. The teams meet again in Toronto on March 2.

Big story -- This is a matchup between the two teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Carolina, in last place, trails Toronto by six points. But the Hurricanes have been playing the better hockey lately, posting wins over Washington, Colorado and Ottawa while winning four of their past six games. The Maple Leafs have won only two of their past 10 games. The game also marks Hurricanes' coach Paul Maurice's first return to Toronto this season. The former Maple Leafs coach made his initial return last year a winning one as Carolina beat Toronto, 2-0, on Jan. 19.

Team Scope:

Hurricanes -- The two top players on the Hurricanes are goalie Cam Ward and center Eric Staal. Ward suffered a deep leg gash on Nov. 7 and was out until Dec. 9 but he said he didn't feel good until the Dec. 26, 4-3 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. Since then, Carolina is 4-2-1. Staal was affected throughout this season by his sister-in-law's losing battle with cancer. She died last Tuesday. Staal missed two games but made an extraordinary effort to get back and help Carolina defeat Ottawa on Sunday. Don't forget this team struggled early last year and then launched a great rally. Ward was 10-1-2 last March and helped his team to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, their forward corps is depleted by injuries.

Maple Leafs --
Coach Ron Wilson has been searching for two weeks for a line combination that will get Phil Kessel scoring again. Kessel, who has 14 goals since joining Toronto on Nov. 3 following his trade from Boston and his shoulder surgery in May, hasn't scored in 11 games. Former college star Tyler Bozak will center Kessel in only his second NHL game. Bozak had an assist against Colorado in his NHL debut Oct. 13. Center Rickard Wallin, who hasn't scored in 34 games this season, returns to the fourth line.

Who's hot -- Hurricanes left wing Ray Whitney has four points in his past two games. Rod Brind'Amour has three points in three games. Center Matt Cullen has three points in two games. Ward has allowed only nine goals in the past five games. … Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle has four points in four games. Center Matt Stajan has four points in three games. Nikolai Kulemin has three points in four games.

Injury report --
Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo has missed 17 games with a right leg injury and is out indefinitely. Right wing Chad LaRose has missed 14 games with a lower-body injury and is due back in mid-January. Right wing Scott Walker had shoulder surgery on Jan. 5 and will miss 4-6 weeks. Left wing Ruutu suffered an upper-body injury Jan. 8 and is out until the end of January. Left wing Sergei Samsonov is likely to miss his fifth-straight game with an upper-body injury. Right wing Cole has missed 14 games with an upper-body injury and is nearing a return.

Toronto centers Mikhail Grabovski (broken wrist) and Wayne Primeau (knee) are out until mid-February. Defenseman Mike Komisarek has missed four games with an upper-body injury and is day-to-day. Defenseman Carl Gunnarson hyperextended his elbow in early December and is nearing a return.

Stat pack --
Kaberle leads NHL defensemen with 35 assists and is third in scoring with 39 points. Right wing Colton Orr is 13th with 86 penalty minutes. Center Matt Stajan is tied for 22nd with six power-play goals. Jason Blake is fifth with 43 takeaways. … Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen leads the NHL with an average of 26:56 minutes per game. Defenseman Andrew Alberts is 11th with 133 hits.

Puck Drop --
Despite a rash of injuries and a major rebuilding effort that's in its early stages, Toronto GM Brian Burke insists his club can make the playoffs.

"If the players that we have here … if that's not still their goal, they can come see me after the game and we'll do our best to get them out of here," Burke said Saturday on Hockey Night In Canada.

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