The Toronto Maple Leafs are heading for the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on an upswing.
Phil Kessel scored twice and Tyler Bozak had three assists in his return after missing 12 games due to injury, leading the Maple Leafs past the Carolina Hurricanes 5-2 on Sunday in their final game before the Winter Classic.
Kessel scored Toronto's first two goals, with Bozak earning an assist on each, to reach the 20-goal mark for the sixth consecutive season. Nikolai Kulemin, Paul Ranger and Dion Phaneuf also scored for Toronto, which next takes the ice against the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium on New Year's Day (1 p.m. ET; NBC; CBC, RDS).
The Maple Leafs head for Ann Arbor with back-to-back victories and a five-game unbeaten streak in regulation, but coach Randy Carlyle said trying to keep his team focused on winning rather than the hoopla that surrounds the outdoor game hasn't been easy.
"I wasn't waving the pompoms to be involved with it to start with," Carlyle said of the Winter Classic. "It's been a trying time.
"Specifically we haven't played as well as we'd like to hang our hat on. Our group, we believe, has got lots of room to grow, so that always put added pressure on. And then you're much more under the microscope if you can believe it. We're under the microscope with you (media) guys alone, and then you add the element of HBO and then the event, there's a lot of factors.
"Again, we're here to win hockey games and that's the most important thing and our focus is going to be on the game."
Bozak, who hadn't played since Dec. 3 due to a lower-body injury, matched his career-high for assists in a game. Jonathan Bernier stopped 41 shots at Air Canada Centre, allowing goals by Carolina's Nathan Gerbe and Justin Faulk. It's the 11th time this season the Maple Leafs (20-16-5) have allowed 40 or more shots; they are 6-3-2 in those games.
"We had enough chances to win a hockey game," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. "The chances were there. They scored and we didn't.
"They're known as an opportunistic team. They had a couple of chances and they capitalized. ... There are a lot of good things in our game but we don't get the results at the end."
Cam Ward made 22 saves for Carolina (14-16-9), which has lost five in a row and ends the 2013 portion of its schedule at home against the Montreal Canadiens on New Year's Eve.
The Hurricanes came out strong and had the Maple Leafs on their heels for the first half of the first period. Carolina took the game's first eight shots on goal before Joffrey Lupul tested Ward at 11:29 during Toronto's first power play. But Bernier stopped all 12 shots the Hurricanes threw at him in the opening period. His best was a pad save on Jeff Skinner's backhander just after the eight-minute mark.
Kessel opened the scoring at 16:56 on a play that left Ward shaking his head. Kessel was behind the goal line to the right of Ward when he flung a backhand toward the net that hit the goaltender's back and deflected into the net for a 1-0 lead.
The Hurricanes got even 1:36 into the second period. Alexander Semin outfought Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner for the puck in the left corner and zipped a pass to an unchecked Gerbe in the lower left circle. Gerbe's one-timer beat Bernier cleanly for his ninth goal of the season.
Ward kept the game tied 4 1/2 minutes later when he robbed Kessel with a glove stop on a 2-on-1 break, then got a lucky bounce when the rebound hopped over a couple of sticks and the Hurricanes cleared the zone.
Ward wasn't as fortunate at 13:42, when James van Riemsdyk fed Kessel on another 2-on-1 break. Kessel's shot from the right circle hit Carolina defenseman Ron Hainsey and caromed past Ward, giving Kessel his second goal of the night and 20th of the season.
"I thought we had a pretty darn good game," Muller said. "We had 40-some shots on net. We had 2-on-1s, 3-on-2s. We had our opportunities. It didn't happen."
Kulemin, who has struggled to score for much of the season, beat Ward at 14:58 with a shot from the left circle. Carolina's Tim Gleason tried to clear the puck up the left wall, but his attempt hit a skate and caromed into the center of the Hurricanes zone, where an unchecked Kulemin picked it up and scored his fifth of the season.
Carolina got one back at 17:43 during a 4-on-3 power play. Faulk set up in the left circle and one-timed Skinner's pass off the stick of Toronto defenseman Cody Franson past Bernier for his third of the season.
Ranger restored Toronto's two-goal lead 4:58 into the third period when his straightaway slapper from just inside the blue line went through traffic and past Ward. Phaneuf hit the empty net with 7.1 seconds to play.
With the two points safely in the bank, the Maple Leafs now can turn their attention toward the Winter Classic.
"It's going to be a pretty cool event," Bozak said. "I know most guys have lots of family here, including me. I'm excited to get to Detroit and see what it's all about."
Material from team and national media was used in this report