After helping the U.S. Olympic team to a surprising silver medal in Vancouver, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson and general manager Brian Burke now turn their focus to turning around their struggling NHL club.
The first opponent they’ll face after the break, the Carolina Hurricanes, has already made strides toward a playoff berth and will try to extend their season-high win streak to six on Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Burke, also the general manager of the U.S. team, gave Wilson a youthful roster for Vancouver with 14 players aged 25 years or younger. The Toronto coach, in turn, helped the Americans to five straight wins before a 3-2 overtime loss to Canada in Sunday’s gold medal game.
The Maple Leafs (19-31-11) are hoping the duo and U.S. forward Phil Kessel(notes) can gain from that experience as they try to stage an improbable rally for their first playoff berth since 2004. Toronto is currently last in the Eastern Conference with 49 points, six behind the Hurricanes (24-30-7) in 14th and 15 back of eighth-place Montreal with 21 games remaining.
“I know they’re disappointed but I think they’ve got to be happy with how they did over the tournament,” forward Lee Stempniak(notes) said. “I think they’ll be happy to be back and hopefully we can get on a roll.”
Toronto will first try to earn its eighth win in 28 games since Dec. 15, but will face a Carolina team that won nine of 11 heading into the two-week hiatus.
The Hurricanes are on their longest win streak since a nine-game run from March 18-April 7, and are trying for a season-high third consecutive road victory. Despite a woeful 5-17-5 start, they are within nine points of the Canadiens.
Their four Olympians also returned wearing medals, with leading scorer Eric Staal(notes) earning gold at the expense of American teammate and defenseman Tim Gleason(notes). Tuomo Ruutu(notes) and Joni Pitkanen(notes) won bronze with Finland.
“I thought it was good for our team,” coach Paul Maurice told the team’s Web site. “But sitting here today and feeling like you hadn’t played in a month and a month, you wish you had just kept going.”
Over Canada’s seven games, Staal had a goal and five assists. Gleason didn’t record a point in six games for the Americans, but he’s one of two Carolina players to score two goals this season against Toronto along with Brandon Sutter(notes).
Kessel, who had a goal and an assist for the United States, has three assists in his last four meetings with the Hurricanes, including the postseason. However, he has three goals in 22 career matchups, including two in Game 5 of last season’s Eastern Conference semifinal series while playing for Boston.
Nikolai Kulemin(notes), meanwhile, has a two goals and two assists in three matchups this season with Carolina. John Mitchell(notes) also has four points (one goal, three assists) and Stempniak has scored in each of the past two meetings.
The Hurricanes won both of those games, have three straight victories at Toronto and won eight of 11 overall between the teams.