Playing a stretch of games against non-playoff contenders, the Carolina Hurricanes looked at this key portion of the schedule as nothing short of must-wins, considering their position of “chaser” in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Canes took care of business one night after dusting off the New York Islanders 6-2 on the road, getting a pair of power-play goals from Joe Corvo and another from a red-hot Eric Staal to beat Tampa Bay 4-1 on Friday night, outshooting the Lightning 41-13.
The 13 shots allowed were a season low for the Canes, who surrendered just 24 against the Islanders last night.
“Now we’re not chasing the hunt so much, you can see the herd, and you’re not so far off the middle of the pack, so it should take some of the pressure off,” said coach Paul Maurice, whose club is still ninth in the East but just three points out of fifth place. “That will last about 24 hours and away you go.”
The Canes had beaten Tampa Bay in four straight one-goal games this season, but broke open yet another close contest against their Southeast Division rival early in the third after Tampa Bay took three straight minors in less than a minute, giving Carolina plenty of 5-on-3 power-play time. And with the game on the line, the Hurricanes cashed in, getting a pair of blasts by Corvo, who has one of the hardest shots in the league.
“It was a nervous, nervous feeling because we had so many good chances to score and it was an emotional game,” Maurice said of the one-goal game before Corvo’s scoring opened things up. “Five games in seven nights are hard to explain. In a full contact sport, that’s as tough a schedule as you can get. I’m really proud of the way we fought through it.”
Tuomo Ruutu bothered rookie goalie Mike McKenna on Corvo’s first goal, then 39 seconds later, the Carolina defenseman gave his club a three-goal lead with a laser over the shoulder of McKenna (playing in just his seventh NHL game) 4:17 into the final period.
“For me, it’s usually a positive or a great negative if we don’t score,” Corvo said of two-man advantages. “It’s such a big opportunity for our team, to take the momentum and take over the game. It was good we scored on them.”
“That was a pretty good 5-on-3 twice in a row,” added Staal. “I figured after the first one they would have covered Joe a little bit better. He’s got an unbelievable shot.”
Carolina, which snapped a three-game home skid in which it was outscored 15-2, hosts Colorado, in last place in the Northwest Division in the Western Conference, on Sunday, then travels to Ottawa (53 points) on Tuesday.
Two players included in a trade between these two teams on Feb. 7 figured in the go-ahead goal in the second period by the Canes, who outshot the Lightning 25-9 through the opening 40 minutes. A turnover by former Carolina defenseman Josef Melichar deep in Tampa Bay’s zone set up Jussi Jokinen’s first score in a Hurricanes uniform and first in 36 games late in the period. Rod Brind’Amour’s assist on the goal broke his eight-game pointless streak.
“Every player who has been traded, they want to beat their former team so badly and I’m not the exception of that,” said Jokinen. “It’s a great feeling. I’ve always been a player who gets goals in stretches so maybe I can start a good stretch here.”
Carolina held the Lightning to its lowest shot output in any period this season, outshooting Tampa Bay 14-1 in the first en route to a 1-0 lead. Staal kept his hot hand going when he caught McKenna leaning toward the near post and let one loose along the ice to the far side of the net 8:30 into the period. The goal moved Carolina’s all-star center within three goals of a fourth straight 30-goal season.
“I saw the hole, but I don’t think he saw it,” said Staal, who had a game-high 10 shots. “I don’t think he was ready for that. I was looking out of the corner of my eye and saw a little bit of the net and fired as hard as I could and caught him not really paying attention. The puck seems to be finding my stick and finding the right areas. It’s a good feeling.”
NOTES: Staal has 31 points in his last 34 games and Carolina is 16-2-1 in games in which he scores. … Jokinen’s last goal before Friday night came on Nov. 13 against Detroit. … Tim Conboy has been in two fights in two nights since being recalled from Albany. … Brandon Sutter was a healthy scratch for the second straight game. … Joni Pitkanen sat out with an upper body injury. … Five Hurricanes (Staal, Ray Whitney, Sergei Samsonov, Corvo and Ryan Bayda) have played in all 60 games. … Whitney is within one point of his ninth career 50-point season. … Carolina, which leads the NHL with the fewest penalties, was called for just three minors.