Canes preview: Carolina a popular stop for former Leafs

'Everybody gets up for Toronto,' Maurice says

calexander@newsobserver.comNovember 20, 2011 

— At times, the Carolina Hurricanes seem to have a Toronto Maple Leafs alumni club chapter.

Defenseman Tomas Kaberle was a longtime fixture in the Leafs' lineup. So was forward Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Center Tim Brent played for the Leafs last season. Winger Jiri Tlusty is a former Toronto first-round draft pick. Defenseman Jay Harrison once was a Leaf.

Today, when Carolina faces Toronto at the RBC Center, the ties between the two teams will be strong with so many Leafs and ex-Leafs on the ice.

"There will be 30 of them playing, yes," Canes coach Paul Maurice said Saturday, exaggerating just a bit. "There are a lot of them."

And let's not forget Maurice. He coached the Leafs for two seasons.

The Hurricanes, now 6-11-3 after three straights losses, shouldn't be lacking motivation today. But it shouldn't hurt having the Leafs (11-7-2) in the house, either.

"That is one of the challenges that Toronto faces," Maurice said. "There are so many kids in the league from that area that everybody at home is watching. Everybody gets up for Toronto."

The Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner was raised in Markham, Ont. He grew up watching the Leafs, attending games at Air Canada Centre.

"It's always fun, always a little more special to play them," Skinner said Saturday. "It's always a little more exciting when you play a team you grew up watching. I don't think that will change anytime soon.

"When you're a kid you dream of making the NHL and when you're a kid the Leafs are the NHL. As you get older, you realize how hard it is to make the league and you just want to play in the league."

Brent, from Cambridge, Ont., also grew up wanting to play for the Leafs and did play for the Leafs. But after playing 79 games for Toronto last season and establishing himself in the NHL, his best option was to sign a free-agent contract with the Hurricanes.

"For me, it was a childhood dream," Brent said. "I grew up 45 minutes down the road from Toronto. It was special to be there, so close to home and to share it with my friends and family. It was a lot of fun."

And today?

"It will be a little strange to look across the ice at some of those guys," Brent said, smiling. "But we have a job to do and there would be nothing sweeter that getting a win against the Leafs."

Kaberle once was one of the Leafs' biggest names and a former NHL All-Star. He played parts of 12 seasons in Toronto before being traded last season to the Boston Bruins and taking part of the Bruins' Stanley Cup run.

"I played there a long time and have lots of memories, so it's a special game for me," Kaberle said. "Right now we're not doing that well so it would be nice to beat them."

Kaberle, Ponikarovsky and others note the media crunch in Toronto, a major Canadian market, make the surroundings markedly different than in Carolina.

"It's a different pressure. It's 24/7 all around the team," Ponikarovsky said.

But for the Canes, winning today is all-consuming. Maurice said Cam Ward would start in goal and that the team would try and replicate Friday's strong defensive effort, albeit in a 1-0 loss against the Buffalo Sabres.

The Canes on Saturday recalled forward Zac Dalpe from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. Maurice was not sure if forward Patrick Dwyer, injured against the Sabres, would available today.

Defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who has missed the past four games with a lower-body injury, will resume skating today. Pitkanen's status is day-to-day, Maurice said.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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