For nearly 56 minutes, Ward, who has a history of playing well against the Leafs, turned aside everything the home team threw at him. But that changed when a tip by Connolly got the Leafs on the scoreboard with less than five minutes to play in the third period. Connolly, a smart veteran whose savvy ways have been a bonus for the Leafs when he has been healthy, deflected Clarke MacArthur’s shot behind Ward at 15:46.
After Connolly’s goal, however, the Leafs could not kill off a high-sticking minor to Joffrey Lupul. Ex-Leaf Alexei Ponikarovsky, who had six goals in the previous 31 games, got the equalizer at 18:06, easily tapping an Eric Staal centring pass behind Leafs goaltender James Reimer.
But the Leafs didn’t roll over. In overtime, Lupul drove to the net and managed to poke the puck loose, putting it into the crease for Connolly to knock into the open net.
The goal made a winner of Reimer, who had not emerged victorious in his previous three games since returning from concussion-like symptoms. Where Ward stopped 36 Leafs shots, Reimer had to make only 18 saves.
“Winning in this league is so hard, it’s ridiculous how hard it is to win,” Reimer said. “Just to be able to win in overtime, it feels great. Kudos to the guys, they played great.
“When (the Hurricanes) tied it up, we could have buckled and we didn’t. We kept pressing hard. We deserved a bounce like that (on Connolly’s winner).”
The win was just the Leafs’ second win in six games overall, and was paramount because it meant they did not drop from their sixth-place spot in the Eastern Conference. Coach Ron Wilson scoffed at the idea that there was more pressure, but the fact is, there was no way, Ward or not, that the Leafs should have come that close to losing against a club as bad as the Hurricanes.
For the first time this season, the Leafs were in a game that was tied 0-0 after 40 minutes.
Ward made 26 saves in the first and second periods combined.
And though Ward made a handful of top-notch stops, the Leafs were guilty of not bearing down with lots of consistency. That pattern started to form in the first period when the Leafs had several odd-man rushes but came away with nothing.
Mostly, those chances involved the Lupul-Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel combination. And if you’re unsure, Wilson will tell you that scoring chances don’t count, but goals do.
Kessel kept the puck on a 2-on-1 with Lupul, and Ward made a pad save. Another odd-man rush resulted in Kessel firing wide and high over the net.
Reimer, meanwhile, barely was tested through 40 minutes, facing only 12 shots. But he had to be sharp to get his right pad on a low shot by ex-Leaf Tim Brent in the second period with Phaneuf serving an interference penalty. Reimer also made a good save on Jamie McBain during that Carolina power play.
But as Connolly said, the Leafs did not get down on themselves as Ward kept shutting the door. Connolly’s leadership helped guide the way.
“He has played really well,” Wilson said. “He has done all the things we thought he could do. It does not matter who he plays with, he tries to make those people around him better, and I think he has done that.”
ARMSTRONG CHIPS IN
Two games into his return to the Maple Leafs lineup, and Colby Armstrong is surprising himself.
Armstrong quietly registered his first point of the season in the Leafs’ 2-1 overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night, assisting on Tim Connolly’s goal late in the third period.
“I feel surprisingly better than I thought I would,” said Armstrong, who missed 23 games with a sprained ankle before getting back into action last Friday.
“You can bag-skate, like I was, but until you get in there and start battling defencemen, there is a big difference. You don’t get the same thing until you are actually in the fire. I’m feeling pretty good right now.”