RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Erik Cole scored with 1:34 left in regulation and the Carolina Hurricanes rallied with two goals in the third period to win their sixth consecutive game, 4-3 over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Eric Staal regained the NHL scoring lead with two goals and an assist, and Cole added an assist as Carolina improved to 6-0 at home and extended the best start in franchise history. Staal nearly had his second hat trick in three games with an empty- net goal in the final seconds, but Cole was called for diving moments earlier.

No matter. The Hurricanes (9-2-1) have earned at least in point in nine games in a row and spoiled the “homecoming” of Toronto’s Jeff O’Neill in this one. He played the previous seven seasons with Carolina – plus two in Hartford before the team moved south – and finished with only one shot in 16 minutes of ice time in his return.

Alexander Steen had a pair of goals and an assist for the Maple Leafs, who lost for the third time in four games. Teammate Matt Stajan had a goal and an assist.

Toronto took a 3-2 lead early in the third period on Steen’s second goal, set up beautifully by Jason Allison. He brought the puck from behind the net and fought off a double-team by Cole and Bret Hedican to feed Steen, and his quick shot beat Cam Ward.

The Hurricanes are used to playing from behind, however. In their previous four victories, they trailed by two goals at various point, so the smaller deficit proved to be no problem. Staal tied it by stuffing in a rebound after Cole redirected Whitney’s shot, gliding in from the blue to give Carolina its second power-play goal.

The first came on a two-man advantage in the second period to break a 1-1 tie. Whitney, who now has points in each of his six games this season, tried to pass across the crease to Cory Stillman, but Aki Berg blocked it right back to him with his skate.

This time, Whitney put the puck on goal and it squirted by Ed Belfour to give the Hurricanes a rare second-period advantage.

The Maple Leafs made it 3-3 with a short-handed goal. Steen sneaked by Staal to take a pass right in front of Cam Ward, and knocked it in.

Notes: Toronto captain Mats Sundin traveled with the team to Raleigh but didn’t dress a day after returning to the ice for practice. After taking a puck to the eye on opening night, he missed his 12th game Thursday night. Sundin hopes to return this weekend. … Carolina D Aaron Ward took a hard hit from Eric Lindros in the final seconds and left the ice slowly. Lindros received a major penalty for boarding.

AP-ES-11-03-05 2148EST

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