The All-Star break helped the Carolina Hurricanes focus on just how much effort it will take to make the playoffs. A postseason berth for the Toronto Maple Leafs, meanwhile, seems unlikely regardless of how hard they work.
After a strong showing coming off the break, the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes look to pin the Maple Leafs with yet another loss as the teams continue their season series Thursday night.
Carolina's 54 points are the lowest among the league's first-place teams, and the Hurricanes (25-24-4) expect to be trying to hold off Southeast contenders Washington, Atlanta and Florida for the rest of the season. Carolina came off the break looking like a team ready for the challenge, beating the New York Rangers 3-1 on Tuesday night.
"I think everybody is in great shape so you don't need the physical rest," Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward said, "but to have some mental rest and not think about things is always beneficial. I came back with a purpose to try to do what we can ... and give ourselves a big push to make the playoffs."
Ward's play has helped put Carolina in contention for a postseason spot. He stopped 34 of 35 shots Tuesday, reminding many of his October start, when he gave up two goals or less in five of 10 games.
Carolina has won three of its last four, and Ward has yielded two goals or less in each of those wins.
The Hurricanes' offense also has played well in that span, scoring 16 goals. Rod Brind'Amour, Sergei Samsonov and Trevor Letowski all found the back of the net for Carolina in Tuesday's win.
Samsonov has given the Hurricanes a boost since being claimed off waivers from Chicago on Jan. 8, scoring three goals in nine games after failing to score in 23 contests with the Blackhawks.
"I think he likes it here," Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said. "I think he's happy in Carolina. We're certainly happy with him."
Samsonov had a goal and two assists in Carolina's last game against Toronto (20-24-8), a 5-4 Maple Leafs' win on Jan. 15. The Hurricanes, however, outscored the Leafs 10-3 in winning the previous two games.
Toronto, which lost 3-2 to St. Louis on Tuesday night in its first game following the break, is in last place in the Northeast and seems resigned to missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Maple Leafs interim general manager Cliff Fletcher may have to start considering trading leading scorer Mats Sundin, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. There were 17 scouts from 15 different teams in the press box looking on Tuesday. The trade deadline is Feb. 26.
"Of course we'll sit down with Mats eventually," Fletcher said. "But it's not even Feb. 1 yet, it's very premature. There's nothing going on in the league yet.
"I just want him to lead the way and see if we can win some hockey games."
Toronto has lost two straight and three of four, and came off the break without center Alex Steen. He is expected to miss 10 to 14 days because of a separated right shoulder suffered last Thursday night in a loss to Washington.
The 23-year-old Steen has 10 goals and 24 points in 50 games.