RALEIGH - At the beginning of February, Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo had some unwanted time on his hands. He spent some of it pondering the eventual end of his playing career.
The veteran defenseman was a healthy scratch for the first three games of the Hurricanes' just-completed road trip, and Corvo didn't like where he was headed.
"If I kept going on that path, I'd probably be retired by next year," the soft-spoken Corvo said. "Or I could fight against it and show people that 35 isn't old."
Corvo, known for offensive skills, scored the opening goal and assisted on the game-winner Thursday night as Carolina beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 at PNC Arena.
In the four games since returning after his benching, Corvo has two goals and five points. An underrated defender, he is most noted for a hard shot, deft passing and a knack for pinching in for scoring chances. When the well went dry in the first few games, he began to question if had the right balance of providing offense and playing responsible hockey.
"I had time to think about what got me to this place," said Corvo, who has played 651 NHL games with five teams. "I just had to eliminate a lot of the hesitation in my game. I think that was holding me back - and a lot of negative thoughts. It gave me time to think about where I was at and which way I could go with my career."
If the past few games are any indication, he has found his answer. His resurgence has coincided with Carolina's recent 5-0-1 stretch that has lifted the Hurricanes into first place in the Southeast Division.
Against the Leafs, he provided the spark in an otherwise tentative game. In the second period, after holding in a clearing attempt, Corvo jumped into a scramble to send a wrister over Toronto goaltender Ben Scrivens' shoulder.
But Corvo triggered Carolina's next goal with a pass up the middle of the ice to Jeff Skinner. A moment later, Jussi Jokinen located a loose puck and popped in his second goal in two games. Jordan Staal finished the scoring just over than two minutes later, slamming home a long rebound.
Corvo's newfound groove is a relief to Carolina coach Kirk Muller. From the start, he had hoped to lean on the veteran blueliner.
"His whole mindset now is he's having fun, he's engaged, he's working hard and making the right plays," Muller said. "And we've got young D back there. We told him that's why we brought him here, to help out. He's a completely different player. He's playing with confidence. He's a really big contributor back there."
The same can be said for goaltender Dan Ellis. In his fourth start of the season, Ellis lowered his goals-against average to 1.74. Most of his 22 saves were of the garden variety, as the Hurricanes' defense limited Toronto's scoring chances all evening.
"Any time you can go into a game and not face many difficult shots - especially after a long road trip - it speaks volumes about our team and our character and how we've adapted to the changes in our system," said Ellis, who began the season on a tryout contract with the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina's American Hockey League affiliate. "We've made a couple little tweaks here and there, but we've also upped the intensity and the attitude, so it works out where you have those games."
Toronto's loss snapped a four-game winning streak, leaving the Leafs 8-6-0. Aside from a very strong third period from Scrivens, the Leafs were flat, failing to generate any sustained offense.
"We didn't skate, and we are a skating team," coach Randy Carlyle said. "We didn't move off the puck, we didn't execute. So we didn't play a game that we are capable of playing. There is no way to sugar coat that."
During the four-game winning streak, the Leafs outscored their opponents 17-6. Against Carolina, they managed just 22 shots -- just five in the third period.
"It was probably one of the least inspiring games we've had in a while," Carlyle said. "We were a step and a half (behind) all night."
The Hurricanes climb to 8-4-1, a particularly solid record given their 0-2-0 start. Coupled with a solid 4-2 win at New Jersey on Tuesday night that closed the road trip, the Hurricanes are playing their best hockey of the season.
"We did a good job of getting in on the forecheck," said Skinner, who assisted on the second and third goals with strong drives to the net. "Our D-men were doing a good job of standing up in the neutral zone and turning a lot of pucks over for us. And the forwards were getting the pucks in the right area and working a cycle once we got behind their D. That was the biggest thing for us."
With role players and defensemen like Corvo adding to the offense, Carolina is looking dangerous.
"The last two or three games, that's the best we've had for production with rolling four lines and six D," Muller said. "Everyone feels they are contributing."