TORONTO - The positive vibes that winning spawn have returned to the Carolina Hurricanes dressing room.
They disappeared last season when they missed the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup the previous spring. "When we won, everything was easy, and when we lost it was a battle," says left-winger Cory Stillman. "You could see it on our faces when you watch video of last year.
"Guys were dragging through the season. But now we're excited to be back. We're a stronger team. Everybody is healthy and ready to play."
They certainly looked Tuesday night like a team ready to climb back into the NHL playoffs, and they made the Toronto Maple Leafs' chances of doing the same look ominously suspect.
Justin Williams, Cory Stillman, Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney, Scott Walker, Jeff Hamilton and Eric Staal all scored on Vesa Toskala in a 7-1 Hurricanes romp.
Bryan McCabe was the only Leaf who could put a puck behind Cam Ward.
Mats Sundin's assist on McCabe's goal was his 916th point as a Leaf, tying him with Darryl Sittler for the club record, but that was long forgotten by the time Carolina had scored its seven consecutive goals.
"Well, it was a flat effort by the whole group and
that's it," said Sundin. "Really, there's no excuses to have an effort like that.
"It's not like we're in the middle of a tough schedule. We just weren't good and that's the bottom line. It was bad, it was frustrating, but we have to go and get ready for Thursday (and a game against the visiting New York Islanders)."
The Hurricanes, who play in Ottawa on Thursday, were angry at themselves for a 2-0 loss in Washington last Saturday and took it out on the Leafs.
"Sometimes you really need a reminder of how hard it is to win in this league," said Williams.
Stillman, making his season debut after missing Carolina's first three games after being shaken up in an auto accident, Williams, Cullen and Rod Brind'Amour each picked up two assists.
"Our top three lines are as potent as any in the league," said Williams. "We're hoping this win will be a springboard to more offensive production."
Four of Carolina's goals came on power plays. Coach Peter Laviolette is using five forwards when his team has an extra skater.
"When the other team is coming at our two forwards at the back end it's nail-biting time but the flip side of that is we've got five dangerous players on the ice," said Laviolette.
When the game began, the thoughts of all the Leafs and of the announced crowd of 19,224 were with Jason Blake, who let his teammates know Monday that he has chronic myelogenous leukemia, which is a slow-growing cancer of the white blood cells caused by an abnormal chromosome in cells in the body's bone marrow. Among symptoms experienced by the 34-year-old Minnesotan is fatigue but he intends to continue playing hockey. He's taking oral medication and will undergo weekly blood tests.
Blake didn't look the least bit fatigued when he slammed Tim Gleason against the end boards in the opening minute.
Toronto had a two-man advantage when McCabe opened the scoring at 4:21. Sundin sent a cross-ice pass into the circle to the left of the net and McCabe instantaneously smashed the puck behind Ward.
That would be it for the Leafs highlights.
"We didn't play our best, not even close," Toskala offered.
"They kept coming at us," said Matt Stajan. "We had a number of turnovers . . . it was like shinny hockey out there."
Williams tied it at 6:46 when, from the circle to the left of Toskala, he picked the top short-side corner of the net with a wrist shot as the goalie was dropping to his knees.
Stillman put Carolina ahead to stay with a power-play goal 23.8 seconds before the first intermission when, from the side of the net, he tapped a rebound off Toskala and into the net.
"At the start, I was a step behind," Stillman said afterwards. "As the game went on, I felt a lot better and I felt more comfortable with the puck."
With Carolina carrying the play as the second period wore on, Leafs coach Paul Maurice tried to get something going by moving Alexei Ponikarovsky up to the first line with Sundin and Nik Antropov and shifting Blake alongside Stajan and Alex Steen. The change had sparked a come-from-behind win over Montreal on Saturday and Maurice was hoping for a repeat.
The Hurricanes were too sharp to let it happen and dominated the rest of the way.
Cullen deflected in a Stillman pass on a power-play goal at 11:41 of the second, Whitney slipped a slider between Toskala's legs on a breakaway at 17:23, Walker smacked the puck into an open side of net on the power play at 1:35 of the third, Hamilton added yet another Carolina power-play goal at 5:07 with a slap shot from the middle of the zone, and Staal reached from behind the net to squeeze the puck between the post and Toskala's left skate at 14:07.
Thousands of Air Canada Centre's expensive seats were empty by now.
The Hurricanes had been angry at themselves for losing 2-0 in Washington on Saturday.
"The other night, we got beat to every loose puck and we lost every battle and (Tuesday) we were prepared to play right from the get-go," said Stillman.
He's from Peterborough, Ont., and always loves the trips north.
"It's fun coming back to play in Toronto," said Stillman.
It was anything but fun for the Leafs on this night, and Maurice admitted to being surprised by the woeful effort.
"You can't get beat like that and not be surprised," he said. "We were in the game until late in the second period,
then they got that fourth goal and we were in a world
"We tried to play someone else's game, and that's a mistake. We don't have their speed or transition game. We do other things well, but we don't have their
Notes: Carolina outshot Toronto 39-28 ... On power plays, Toronto was 1-for-5 and Carolina was 4-for-8 ... Carolina improved to 2-1-1 while Toronto slipped to 1-2-1 ... Blake's wife, Sara, had surgery for thyroid cancer six years ago ... GM John Ferguson says Blake's US$20-million, five-year contract is insured for health matters ... Sundin remained tied with Sittler at 389 for the club goals record. His assist tied him with Sittler at 527 for second place in assists in club history. Borje Salming owns the record with 620 ... Tucker hasn't earned a point in Toronto's four games ... Wade Belak has been a healthy scratch for all four games.