“We’re deciding where to turn the screws and where not to because it’s January now, not September,” Maurice said after a 3-1 victory over Atlanta on Wednesday night that pushed the Canes three games over .500. “We’re still trying to find our way some with this team, but our overall December was good. We probably played a little better than our record, but we also played a lot of playoff teams.”
Carolina finished December under its new coach with a 6-4-3 record for 15 points – its best month so far point-wise - but still trail Southeast Division leader Washington by 10 points heading into 2009.
The gap was narrowed after Sergei Samsonov registered his first three-point game of the season with two goals and an assist as the Canes beat Atlanta for the second time in five days.
After a month on the job, Maurice believes he’s got a good team that is ready to tackle a difficult January schedule.
“More than anything I like the personalities,” Maurice said. “They are a good bunch of guys and they like coming to the rink and like being around each other – so that gives us a chance. But we still have to define what is Carolina Hurricanes’ hockey. That’s the biggest task we have because we know January is a huge month for us. I still think we can be more physical and a little more pedal to the floor mentality, but it’s hard to go when you’re going D-zone coverage every day in practice.”
The 18,137 in attendance on New Year’s Eve was the largest crowd at the RBC Center since opening the season with sellouts against Florida and defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit.
Corvo clinched it for the Canes late in a power play midway through the third period, rushing down the left wing, side-stepping Atlanta defenseman Tobias Enstrom and unleashing his deadly slap shot over the shoulder of Kari Lehtonen.
Cam Ward did the rest down the stretch, stopping eight of Atlanta’s 21shots in the third.
“Our defense has been an improvement from where we started the season,” said Ward, who was sporting some ice on his shoulder after taking a shot there. “We’ve not giving up as many odd-man rushes. We have just simplified things and it has made it easy on everybody.”
Samsonov, who also assisted on the Corvo goal, gave the Canes a 2-1 lead heading into the final period when he corralled a shot by Tuomo Ruutu off the chest of Lehtonen and lifted it high over the sprawled goalie as the Carolina defense limited the Thrashers to just 13 shots through the first 40 minutes.
After going without a point in the first 10 games of the season, Samsonov has 19 points in the last 28 games.
“It’s nice to get it going and nice to contribute to the team,” Samsonov said.
Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the league’s Carolina killers, broke his personal-worst nine-game streak without a goal by beating Ward with a low shot along the ice just 28 seconds after Tuomo Ruutu went off for charging midway through the first period. It was the 27th goal in 42 career games against the Canes for the Russian star.
It appeared Carolina would head to the locker room trailing by a goal, but Samsonov’s great individual effort tied the score at 1-1, beating Lehtonen with a backhander as he was falling to the ice on a delayed tripping penalty against Chris Thorburn.
“We worked on D-zone coverage for two days and we had two breakdowns over 60 minutes, which isn’t too bad,” Maurice said. “I know Sergei got two goals, but our third and fourth line was good, we felt real comfortable with them tonight.”
NOTES: Maurice won his 350th NHL game. … Samsonov’s two goals moved him with one of 200 for his career. … Patrick Eaves played his 200th NHL game. … Niclas Wallin missed his 11th straight game with an ankle injury. … Carolina improved to 7-5 against Southeast Division teams and five games above .500 against the Eastern Conference. … The Canes have at least one power-play goal in six of the last eight. … The New Year’s Eve record at the RBC Center now stands at 3-4.