Maple Leafs Face Hurricanes in Crucial Road Game

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

By Lukas Hardonk (@LukasHardonk)

The Toronto Maple Leafs will continue their battle for a playoff spot tonight as they roll into Carolina for a meeting with the Hurricanes. James Reimer will be in net for the Maple Leafs, while you can expect to see Cam Ward between the pipes for Carolina.

Following two consecutive wins heading into the NHL’s Christmas break, 3-2 over the Buffalo Sabres and 5-3 over the New York Islanders, the Leafs began the unofficial second half of the season with a rusty performance against their soon-to-be rivals, the Florida Panthers.

Reimer didn’t make it past the mid-way point of Tuesday’s game against the Panthers; he allowed three goals on eight shots before getting the yank.

The first goal he allowed appeared to be deflected in by Michal Repik, although Erik Gudbranson was given credit. Then it was Bill Thomas on a botched breakaway attempt that couldn’t have been any easier to stop, followed by a goal from Jason Garrison less than two minutes later.

Some say that Reimer should be given the night off tonight, but it only makes sense to go back to the guy who has held you in a playoff spot for much of the season.

On the other end of the spectrum, Cam Ward is coming off a strong performance against the New Jersey Devils, another team the Leafs are battling against in the race for a playoff spot. Ward stopped 23 of the 25 shots he faced en route to a 4-2 victory and was also given credit for this goal after Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk sent the puck the length of the ice and into his own team’s net, which was empty at the time.

Ward had the night off on Wednesday, when his Hurricanes fell 4-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The last time these two teams met, December 13 in Toronto, Ward stopped 36 of 38 shots only to lose 2-1 in overtime. Tim Connolly scored both of the Leafs’ goals in that game, while it was former Maple Leaf Alexei Ponikarovsky notching the only Hurricanes marker.

The Leafs could use some help from Connolly tonight, as they have dropped four of their last six games. Unfortunately for the Leafs, though, Connolly has been relatively dry lately. Aside from the two assists that he picked up last Friday night against the Islanders, he has been unheard from since that December 13 game.

On the flip side of things, Phil Kessel has been scoring at a point-per-game pace over his last six games and is currently riding a three-game point streak (one goal, two assists).

For the Hurricanes, Tuomo Ruutu has also been on fire over his last six. He has five goals and two assists over a six-game point streak of his own.

The bad news for the Hurricanes is that they are still without forward Jeff Skinner. The 19-year-old still leads the team in scoring with 24 points in 30 games, despite the fact that he has missed eight games this season with a concussion.

Skinner isn’t the only player who will miss tonight’s game with a concussion, though. His teammate Joni Pitkanen will also sit out with a concussion; he hasn’t played since December 6 against the Calgary Flames.

Toronto’s John-Michael Liles won’t play, either, due to concussion-like symptoms. It is believed that he suffered the injury during the Leafs’ December 22 game against the Buffalo Sabres, when he took a huge hit from Sabres forward Paul Gaustad.

As far as special teams go, the Leafs remain dead last in the NHL in terms of penalty killing. At 72.7 percent, Toronto has had to rely on its impressive power play (21.1 percent, fourth in the NHL) to get them through a few games.

Carolina hasn’t succeeded in either area of special teams. The Hurricanes are 30th in the league in power play percentage at a dismal 12.4 percent, while they are 27th in penalty killing at 78.5 percent.

Players to watch

Toronto – James Reimer: Reimer allowed three goals on eight shots on Tuesday night against the Panthers before he was pulled. Can he rebound with a strong performance? Watch to see.

Carolina – Tuomo Ruutu: Ruutu is currently riding a six game point streak over which he has five goals and a pair of assists. It remains to be seen if he can lead his team to victory tonight.

Follow Lukas on Twitter @LukasHardonk for more Maple Leafs coverage.

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