Leafs shake 'n Blake

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- There are many ways to be a pain in the butt, as Jason Blake has learned in his roller-coaster ride as a Maple Leaf.

The sometimes troubled, sometimes talented forward admits he got under the skin of his teammates last season and in his words "wasn't a fun person to be around."

In a wild and nearly wasted 6-4 win over the Carolina Hurricanes last night at the RBC Center, Blake took a big step in distancing himself from that checkered past.

An empty-net goal with 11 seconds remaining was cause for both celebration and relief, capping a hat trick and five-point night for the veteran winger, his best as a Leaf.

The effort helped spoil a furious comeback by the 'Canes, who trailed 4-0 late in the second period, and scuttled coach Paul Maurice's bid to get a dig at the team that fired him in the off-season.

"Jason is starting to feel it, again," Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said afterwards. "It wasn't there in training camp and it wasn't there in the first few weeks of the season.

"All I ever said to him was: 'Your game is going hard to the net and being a pain in the butt. If you don't play with an edge, if you play on the perimeter like you did last year, you are not going to be the player you can be.' "

While he may not be the 40-goal man he was with the New York Islanders in the 2006-07 season, Blake is well on his way to atoning for a miserable debut season in Toronto, one in which he was diagnosed with leukemia, struggled under Maurice and lost his desire to play.

The trick last night gave Blake 13 goals this season, just two fewer than he scored in 82 games a year ago.

"I'm not going to lie to you. For three months last year, I wasn't the greatest teammate," Blake said. "I didn't want to play hockey any more."

It is clear that Wilson has helped push the right buttons. A couple of games in the press box early in the season was a blow to Blake's ego, but he has responded with a better, more consistent effort and has clicked with linemate Dominic Moore.

"He went through a lot last year ... a lot of stuff to handle at once," Wilson said. "In the new environment, and like a lot of players who strike a gold vein, the first year with the big money is often times the difficult one. But he is comfortable now and I'm glad he is playing well."

When Blake made it 4-0 at 15:07 of the second period last night, with a pretty move on a feed from Moore to get the puck past Carolina goaltender Cam Ward, the Leafs looked comfortable, as well.

Too comfortable, in fact.

The Hurricanes' Tuomo Ruutu scored 82 seconds into the third period to halve the Leafs lead and an easy win looked in jeopardy.

Carolina evened it 4-4 on Scott Walker's goal at 8:40 and suddenly a fifth consecutive Toronto loss looked possible.

But when Tomas Kaberle buried a one-timer on a feed from Pavel Kubina during a power play at 14:35, the Leafs regained the lead sending their old coach and the 'Canes to a fourth consecutive loss.

"We never should have put ourselves in that situation," Wilson said. "Fortunately, we found a way to win."

Ian White had the other Leafs goal while Jiri Tlusty picked up three assists.


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