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Recap: Canes’ leaders come up big in 4-1 win over Leafs

Still getting little help from elsewhere in the playoff race, the Canes’ leaders took it on themselves to will the team to a gigantic win in Toronto.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Leadership has gotten the Carolina Hurricanes to this point, and it was the Canes’ leaders who got them one step closer to the Stanley Cup playoffs on Tuesday night.

Dougie Hamilton scored twice, and Justin Williams and Jordan Staal each chipped in with a goal apiece as the Hurricanes took a crucial 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, winning the season series and, more importantly, reducing their magic number for playoff qualification to four.

In the first period, the Hurricanes began with a conservative approach, making sure to monitor their play in all three zones. Neither team exchanged many chances with just six shots between the two teams through the first eight minutes.

William Nylander seemingly opened the scoring on a 2-on-1 opportunity late in the first, but head coach Rod Brind’Amour initiated a coach’s challenge. It was determined upon review that Nylander was offside on the play and the goal was waved off. Three minutes later, Williams chipped a puck from behind the net. It caromed off the back of Leafs goaltender Garret Sparks into the back of the net for the game’s first goal. The Hurricanes committed another penalty in the period after being whistled for too many men. Carolina’s penalty kill, however, came up strong and took a 1-0 lead to the dressing room.

Early in the second period, Nino Niederreiter drew an interference penalty against Martin Marincin. Just nine seconds into the power play, Hamilton banked a puck off Sparks’ leg along the goal line and into the back of the net to give the Canes a 2-0 lead.

Noted Canes killer John Tavares then did what he has historically done best against the team from Raleigh: score a goal. He got the Leafs on the board after Jaccob Slavin failed to clean up the rebound chance and Tavares made a diving chance on the rebound to give the Maple Leafs life. Toronto pushed after Tavares’ goal and Mitch Marner almost found the back of the net.

With less than a minute remaining and the teams at 4-on-4, Staal completed a fantastic backcheck and prevented Auston Matthews from tying it up and deflating the Canes momentum.

The Canes’ defensive acumen continued into the third, when the Leafs came out of the locker room flying and putting the visitors back on their heels. Mrazek stood tall, helped by an active defense and a fortunate occurrence when the whistle blew despite the puck being uncovered in the crease five minutes into the period.

Then, Staal struck. On a line change, the Canes alternate captain came off the bench with gusto and was the beneficiary of a perfect Niederreiter pass to the top of the slot. Staal made no mistake, wiring a wrister high over Sparks’ blocker to give the Canes breathing room again.

The Canes continued to press, Andrei Svechnikov denied twice by Sparks in a matter of seconds. Mike Babcock pulled Sparks for the extra attacker with 2:30 to go, but the Leafs could never get set up in their own zone. Brock McGinn looked to have finished it off with 50 seconds left, but he was offside on the entry and the goal was taken off the board.

It took all of two seconds more for Hamilton to score his second of the night into the still-vacated net, setting a new career high with 18 goals and sealing a precious two points for the Canes.

The win was the 100th of Mrazek’s career, and combined with the Canadiens’ win over the Lightning, sets the stage for a playoff spot to be clinched on Thursday. A Canes win and a Canadiens loss in regulation will do the trick and put the Hurricanes into the postseason for the first time in ten years.