RALEIGH, N.C. - It’s a little early to declare it a knockout punch, although Nikolai Kulemin might beg to differ.
Another impressive comeback and another night running into a hot goaltender yielded a familiar result for the Maple Leafs, who fell 6-4 to the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday night in a wild one at the RBC Center.
A pair of third-period goals by Leafs plugger forward Tim Brent were matched by Brandon Sutter as Toronto drifted further from the fringes of the playoff race as the all-star break nears.
Earlier in the day, Leafs coach Ron Wilson talked about the need to make a move now or essentially be resolved to a long final two months of the season.
But the Hurricanes are much closer to the playoff fight and with young talent to burn were too much for the Leafs, who lost a third consecutive road game.
Though they didn’t go down without a fight, one of the team’s first-line forwards in Kulemin did. In a skirmish at the end of the first period, the skilled Russian made the ill-advised decision to deliver a gloved fist to the face of Tim Gleason.
Gleason responded by a one-two punch to Kulemin’s face that some will see as a sucker punch but ended the Leafs forward’s night. Bloodied and battered, Kulemin didn’t return after suffering what is suspected to be a broken nose.
Give the Leafs credit for some scrap of their own, however.
When the Canes went up 3-1 early in the third on a goal by Brandon Sutter, it looked like it was game over.
He got the Leafs back in it less than two minutes later on a nice backhanded shot that beat Cam Ward, who to that point had owned the Leafs shooters. And Brent, who scored the Leafs first goal of the season, wasn’t done.
Just 71 seconds later, Brent scored his sixth of the season and third in the past two games on a breakaway deke of Ward.
Carolina restored its two-goal advantage when just for good measure, their red-hot 18-year-old rookie Jeff Skinner blasted a power-play slapshot into the empty net at 11:02 remaining. The Markham native and former Kitchener Ranger has 18 on the season and is arguably the best rookie in the league to this point.
The Leafs once again pulled to within a goal when Brent set up Mike Brown with a nifty pass and the penalty-killing specialist finished it off for his second of the season.
Carolina opened the scoring in the first on a power-play goal, a Joe Corvo shot from the point that glanced off the ankle of Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and past a handcuffed J-S Giguere.
Despite a sluggish first period, the Leafs stayed in the game when they scored with nine seconds remaining as a puck bounced in off another defenceman, this time former Leaf and current ’Cane Ian White. Joey Crabb was originally credited with his first of the season but it as later given to Tomas Kaberle.
Erik Cole iced it with an empty netter in the final minute to give the Hurricanes the 1,00th win in franchise history.