With the calendar set to change, there was one game left on the schedule as the Carolina Hurricanes traveled to Toronto to face the Maple Leafs. The Canes have been finding their stride recently, winning back-to-back games out of the break against Nashville and Montreal. The Leafs feature one of the most daunting cores in the league, led by the league leader in goals, Auston Matthews.
The Hurricanes sent out the same line combinations that have earned them their last two wins. Pyotr Kochetkov would get the start in net. He was coming off a 35-save performance over the Predators on Wednesday night. Toronto, playing the second half of a back-to-back, started Martin Jones after Ilya Samsonov allowed six goals in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Blue Jackets in Columbus.
When you're making your homecoming, like Michael Bunting did in this game, you'd like to score early to get it out of the way. Bunting wasted little time doing so. After Martin Necas drew an early penalty, Sebastian Aho found Bunting in the slot, and the shot trickled through Martin Jones' pads to get the Canes going early. It was clear how much his teammates wanted him to get one based solely on their enthusiasm during the celebration. Things got a little scary late in the period as Pyotr Kochetkov stretched back to deny a chance from Mitch Marner. Kochetkov stayed down for a little bit but remained in the game as the Canes held their lead into the break.
The Canes came out of the intermission a forward short as Jesper Fast was announced to be out for the remainder of the game. Fast took a hit from Noah Gregor along the boards in the first period, and it was clear that he was a little out of it. Neither side gave up much in the second period. It took a late penalty to help the Canes find another goal. The power play needed 12 seconds to convert on a play that took the entire unit to accomplish. In the end, Andrei Svechnikov put a saucer pass perfectly on Seth Jarvis' stick as he slid it through the five-hole to extend the lead.
As well as things were going for the Canes, Toronto made it tense early in the third period. Former Hurricane Max Domi made a smart pass to Timothy Liljegren as he jumped into the play. The Leafs defender snapped one past Pyotr Kochetkov to give Toronto life. The penalty kill came up with a huge stop midway through the period as the Canes did their best to melt time off the clock.
After the Canes were unsuccessful on a power play, Toronto lifted Martin Jones. Sebastian Aho, who had two assists to this point, picked off a pass from Mitch Marner and skated it all the way to the empty net to provide the likely dagger. The Leafs got a late goal that initially looked like it had been stopped by Pyotr Kochetkov before being overturned by replay. While it barely crossed the line, Kochetkov nearly had a Save of the Year candidate. Instead, the Canes had to settle for a 3-2 win as they ended 2023 on a high note.
No player in the league is hotter than Sebastian Aho out of the Christmas break. Aho has an excellent case for being named the league's #1 star this week. He has played a hand in 11 of the team's 13 goals over the last three wins. He hasn't been doing it alone, either. Andrei Svechnikov had another multi-point night, providing assists on both goals from the power play. Speaking of special teams, they were magnificent in this game. The power play struck twice, while the penalty kill kept one of the best power plays in the league off the board on four attempts.
The most important part of this win was the work done to ensure Toronto's Core 4 stayed off the board. Auston Matthews entered the night with 29 goals, and while he had his chances early, he was kept off the scoresheet. William Nylander, who came in with a 13-game point streak, was held pointless for just the fourth time this season. Mitch Marner and John Tavares were non-factors. Sebastian Aho and company outplayed the Leafs' stars, and there's no tiptoeing around that.
It looked like Pyotr Kochetkov was in some serious pain when he went down late in the first period, but he fought through it to provide another great performance between the pipes. He didn't have to be Superman, though he nearly was on what turned into a late goal for Toronto. He made the routine stops, withstood a few pushes from the Leafs, and ended the night with 25 stops to get his save percentage back to .900. His turnaround has been the catalyst for the recent resurgence of the Hurricanes.
While 2023 might be over, there is plenty of hockey left to be played this season. The Hurricanes will open 2024 at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday against the Rangers. It's the team's second trip after dropping a 2-1 decision earlier in the season. After the team plays the Capitals on Friday, they'll be at PNC Arena for almost the rest of the month, playing just one game on the road before the All-Star Break.