"We were confident we were going to win the game the whole time," said Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul, who took matters into his own hands Thursday night as the clock wound down. "That's the sign of our team really maturing. We get in these tight games, last year we probably wouldn't have won that game and this year we did."
After Jordan Staal put Carolina ahead 3-2 at 6:55 of the third period, Toronto regathered with Dion Phaneuf tying it at 14:35 before Lupul scored the go-ahead goal with 3:10 remaining.
Jay McClement and Nikolai Kulemin then sealed the deal with empty-net goals for an adrenalin-pumping 6-3 Toronto win.
"Not a lot of things were going right for us for a little while there in the hockey game," said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. "But they reached back and found away and that's what it's about."
Carlyle pointed to a shift in the coaching staff's attitude towards how you approach such situations.
"We as coaches were probably doing a poor job early in the year, ramping up the intensity instead of calming it down," he explained. "With our young group we had to take a look back. We were doing too much yelling, too much talking. There was too much.
"So we decided that we would take a quieter, calmer approach when those things happens and just relate to the players that we can get ourselves out of this — this is what you have to do, don't change what you were doing previously, just move your feet and the puck, make the same play."
A little Zen goes a long way, it seems.
Tyler Bozak (a goal and two assists), Phil Kessel (two assists) and James van Riemsdyk (one assist) combined for six points, stealing the spotlight back from Nazem Kadri's line.
But Lupul — a Kadri linemate — assisted on Phaneuf's tying goal and scored the winner. He raced past Joe Corvo and then beat Justin Peters for his seventh of the season, shifting the puck from his backhand before tucking the puck in the net. All his goals have come in five games since returning from a broken forearm.
Cody Franson also scored for Toronto (19-12-4) before 19,236 at the Air Canada Centre.
"We got a couple of ugly ones and a couple of pretty ones," said Toronto goalie James Reimer, making his sixth start in the last seven games.
Added Phaneuf: "A real big character game."
Eric Staal and Alexander Semin also scored for the Hurricanes (15-15-2), whose winless streak stretched to seven games. Carolina, in dire need of points to stay in range of the final playoff spot in the East, heads to Winnipeg on Saturday and Montreal on Monday.
"I think tonight was honestly one of our best nights of just working hard and working through it and trying to find a way to win the game," said Jordan Staal. "Obviously we didn't come up with the result but there's still, I guess you could say, some good things but obviously we've still got to be better if we want to make a push for the playoffs."
Added Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller: "Tonight I thought we had a lot of good things and I thought we deserved a better result."
Toronto outshot Carolina 36-22 with Kessel accounting for six of those shots — five in the first period. He also showed off marvellous passing skills.
"He's an elite-level player that can find people," said Carlyle.
Kessel, who was flying all night, now has 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in his last nine home games.
Jordan Staal's goal made it 3-2 after two Leafs ran into each other in the defensive end. Staal cruised past both and roofed the puck for his eighth of the season. Tuomo Ruutu got the assist for his 300th NHL point.
Kessel hit the crossbar seconds later.
The turning point came in the third with Eric Staal off for closing his hand on the puck. Toronto stormed the Carolina goal, with Lupul and Bozak unable to stuff the puck in from close range.
Phaneuf tied it up five seconds after the penalty expired, hammering home a shot from the point.
Peters became the third Hurricanes goalie to face the Leafs this season. Cam Ward (sprained MCL) and Dan Ellis (leg laceration) played in Carolina's two earlier wins over Toronto.
One second after Toronto opened the scoring with a Bozak goal off a sweet Kessel pass at 3:58 of the first, Toronto's Frazer McLaren and Kevin Westgarth were fighting at centre ice with the Hurricanes forward getting the better of the tussle. McLaren, who officially spent one second on the ice before the fight, had to head to the dressing room for repairs. His cheek, carved open by a slash in a March 6 win over Ottawa, had split like a ripe tomato.
Westgarth emerged from the box to Carolina sticks banging on the boards. McLaren, with a face only a mother could love, was back on the ice later in the period.
The Leafs came into the game leading the league in fighting majors (33). In contrast, the Hurricanes had just 10 fighting majors.