Eric Staal played great two-way hockey en route to a three-point night, Cam Ward was cutting down the angles in net, Joni Pitkanen led a fast-paced defense and there was a shutdown third period en route to a 5-3 victory over the Dallas Stars on Wednesday night.
It all came after a home win against Vancouver and a four-game road trip that included a victory against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
And what makes this latest December surge even more impressive is the Canes are still well back in the playoff chase and entered the game against the Stars without Erik Cole, Chad LaRose, Tim Gleason and Niclas Wallin – all on the shelf with injuries.
Still, Tuomo Ruutu registered his first career hat trick – and the team’s second straight at home into an empty net (Cole got the other against the Canucks) – to improve to 3-2-1 this month.
“We showed some patience and it didn’t look like we were trying to play a defensive game,” coach Paul Maurice said. “We skated, closed the gaps and did a lot of good things. Our defensemen were standing at the red line and at the blue line instead of giving up ice, and all of that is based on our forwards’ back pressure and their work level. I think we’ve played very well in our last six.”
Carolina was 3-for-5 on the power play, including Ruutu’s final score with 5.3 seconds left.
“Our breakouts now are as good as I’ve ever seen them,” Maurice said of the team’s power play. “Our ability to come up the ice with speed has been good and we’ve scored a number of goals off the rush, which means we haven’t had to dump the puck very much. We’re still barking to shoot the puck more, but there comes a point when they get some confidence with it and you just want to leave them alone.”
Ruutu scored his first career hat trick after registering two goals in a game on 10 different occasions.
His game-winner came early in the third as he avoided a check along the right wall, kept on chugging and then pitched a pass across the slot for Ray Whitney. But the puck never made it to his fellow winger, instead bouncing off of Loui Eriksson and past Marty Turco.
Then, with Turco pulled at 4-2, Whitney tried to set up Ruutu for his hat trick with 1:35 left instead of shooting the puck into the empty net. He ended up not getting a shot off. Thirty-one seconds later, the Stars scored to close to 4-3.
Whitney can laugh about the failed attempt now since the game ended in the “W’” column.
“I heard it from a couple of guys on the bench when it went to 4-3,” Whitney said. “Staal called me (a name). We aren’t in that luxury of not winning games, so next time I’ll just put it in. I was trying to get (Ruutu) his third one and I just ran out of room and I didn’t know where he went.”
It all ended well a minute later when Whitney eventually was able to feed his linemate for Ruutu’s 10th goal of the season and his elusive hat trick.
“We were playing pretty well and this time we didn’t change things,” Ruutu said. “Maybe in the first two months of the season even if we played well we started doing something different and it ended up costing us points.”
It’s hard to believe that Ward got his first victory in nine weeks following a slow start and then a leg laceration that sidelined him for more than a month.
“The last time I won was the fourth game of the year so it’s a good feeling,” Ward said. “Hopefully we can build on something like this.”
The Canes headed into the third leading 3-2 after allowing Dallas back into the game, surrendering a pair of power-play chances, including a Brenden Morrow rebound midway through the second in a period which saw the Canes register just four shots.
“They have too good of an offense that if you sit back they can pick you apart, so I thought the guys did a good job in the second intermission of regrouping and changing our mindset and going back on the attack,” Ward said. “A good defense is a good offense and I thought we were in their zone for most of the third period.”
The Canes outshot the Stars 11-5 in the third, at one time holding an 8-1 edge to start the period.
Carolina got goals less than two minutes apart early in the first to set the Stars on their heels, then added a Staal power-play tally with 7:25 left in the period for a 3-0 lead. Staal now has 13 points in 10 games since returning from an injury.
But the Canes couldn’t escape the period without allowing a late goal, coming just 15 seconds into a Dallas power play.
Bryan Rodney, on his fourth recall this season from the minors, assisted on Carolina’s two first-period power plays, his long break-out pass sending Jussi Jokinen in free on Turco for his first goal against his former team.
Carolina was 0-4 against the Pacific Division, being outscored 15-5, prior to its win over Dallas, a team that shut out the Canes 2-0 on Nov. 23.
NOTES: Tim Gleason sat out after suffering a facial gash at Washington on Friday night. … The Canes scored at least two power play goals for the first time since getting three against Minnesota on Nov. 15. … Carolina led after the first period for just the 11th time in 33 games. … Andrew Alberts, Matt Cullen and Tom Kostopoulos are the only Canes to play in every game so far. … Ward’s assist on the first goal was his second helper of the season and eighth of his career. … Carolina is now 6-0-2 when Jokinen scores a goal. … Five hits by Alberts moves the defenseman within two of 100. … Brett Carson picked up his first NHL point with an assist on Ruutu’s game-winner.