TORONTO (AP) — Justin Williams and Dougie Hamilton each banked in goals from behind Toronto’s net as the Carolina Hurricanes picked up a big two points in the Eastern Conference playoff race with a 4-1 victory over the listless Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.
Jordan Staal also scored for the Hurricanes, while Hamilton added an empty-netter.
Petr Mrazek stopped 23 shots for Carolina, which came in having lost three of its past four in regulation as the franchise looks to make the postseason for the first time since 2009 — currently the NHL’s longest streak of playoff futility.
The Leafs clinched a playoff spot for a third consecutive spring with Monday’s 2-1 road victory over the New York Islanders to set up a second consecutive first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins.
Toronto entered Tuesday’s games four points back of Boston for second in the Atlantic Division, and home ice in the opening round, but will now start on the road after the Bruins defeated the Blue Jackets 6-2 in Columbus.
The Hurricanes are in the first-wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 95 points. Columbus and Montreal each have 94 points, but the Blue Jackets have second wild-card spot because of a tiebreaker.
All three teams battling for the East’s two wild-card spots have two games remaining.
Playing the second of a back-to-back and its third in four nights, the Leafs were sluggish most of the game against a motivated opponent.
Toronto fell behind 2-0 at 2:13 of the second period on a Carolina power play with Martin Marincin in the box for interference. Sparks made a desperation save on Hamilton at the side of the crease, but the Hurricanes defenseman managed to bank his follow-up effort off the netminder’s right leg from below the goal line — Carolina’s second from behind the Leafs’ net — for the Toronto native’s 17th of the season.
The crowd jeered the home side’s first shot of the period, and just its third of the game, less than four minutes into the second, but the Leafs got on the board midway through the second.
Tavares won a faceoff on the power play back to Morgan Rielly, whose initial shot was tipped by Nazem Kadri. The puck fell to Tavares and he buried his own rebound from in close to add to his career-high goal and point totals at 10:55.
Patrick Marleau tipped a shot just wide of the Carolina goal five minutes into the third as Toronto started to push before Mrazek robbed both William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen on point-blank chances.
But the Hurricanes hemmed the Leafs into their own zone midway through the period, with Staal firing a wrist shot from the high slot that beat Sparks past the blocker for his 10th to make it 3-1 at 9:36.
Hamilton then added his second into an empty net with under a minute to play.
Sparks, who got the nod after Andersen made 28 saves in Monday’s victory, struggled on Carolina’s opener in the first for the lethargic Leafs.
Tavares won a defensive zone draw, but Williams beat Ron Hainsey to the puck and swept a one-handed effort from below the goal line that somehow went between the netminder’s skate and the near post for his 23rd.
Lucas Wallmark had a down-and-out Sparks at his mercy earlier in the period, but he rang a shot off the iron.
Toronto appeared to go ahead 1-0 when Nylander took a pass from Auston Matthews and beat Mrazek on a 2-on-1 rush at 15:01, but the Hurricanes correctly challenged for offside.
The Leafs’ two shots in the opening 20 minutes matched their season low in a first period.
NOTES: Curtis McElhinney, whom the Leafs lost to the Hurricanes before the season in favor of keeping Sparks, dressed as Carolina’s backup. The veteran McElhinney is 19-11-2 this season with a 2.57 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Sparks, 10 years McElhinney’s junior, came into Tuesday 8-8-1 with a 3.15 GAA and a .901 save percentage. … Tavares has 88 points, just two back of Mitch Marner’s 90 for the team lead. … Andersen is scheduled to start Thursday’s visit by Tampa and Saturday’s regular-season finale in Montreal. … Boston beat Toronto in seven games in last year’s playoffs. … Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin (undisclosed) and winger Andreas Johnsson (illness) sat out for Toronto. Johnsson also missed Monday’s game. Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner (back) is expected to suit up for the first time since Feb. 27 on Thursday.
Hurricanes: Host New Jersey on Thursday night.
Maple Leafs: Host Tampa Bay on Thursday night.