After notching a pair of 5-1 wins over Boston and the New York Rangers with some major offensive firepower, the Canes placed the defensive clamps on the New York Islanders in a grind-it-out type of game, winning 4-1 Thursday night.
The Canes have now won three straight, outscoring their opponents 14-3, to improve to 8-5 in January.
“Our structure is as good as it has been all year in terms of how the lines are fitting,” said coach Paul Maurice. “It is easy to get loose at this time and guys can just play for their points, but I don’t think we’ve done that because we’ve got the leadership taking care of that in the room, and our goaltender has been pretty darn good. That has a lot to do with everything.”
Cam Ward’s last shutout came against the Islanders late last season, and it appeared he would get his first whitewash this year after Yelle’s shorthanded goal midway through the third gave the Canes a 3-0 lead, but New York got one with 4:31 remaining to spoil yet another shutout bid.
Still, that didn’t put a damper on Ward’s performance, stopping 26 of 27 shots. He came into the game with a 2.20 goals against average and a .933 save percentage over his last 15 games, and he didn’t hurt his stats on this night.
When asked if Carolina was playing its best hockey of the season, Ward quickly answered by saying, “It’s fair to say that. You can see the confidence in the players now. We’re not second-guessing and we’re having some fun. It’s good to see the guys clicking and playing well.”
Yelle came into the game with just 94 goals in 971 career games, and while Eric Staal remained pistol hot with yet another goal, it was Yelle’s timely score that was the offensive play of the night.
Leading 2-0 and with the Islanders on a power play midway through the third, Yelle threw a check along the boards, muscled the puck out of the zone and headed up ice 2-on-1 with Patrick Dwyer. Instead of passing, Yelle made a nice drag move and beat Rick DiPietro high for a three-goal lead.
“He’s kind of a little under-rated (offensively) but he is a very good two-way player,” Ward said. “He was sliding down on the PK to block shots all night and doing whatever it took to get the puck out, and I’m aware in practice that he can shoot the puck. All the Caniacs saw that tonight.”
Jussi Jokinen scored an empty-netter late to seal the deal. Staal assisted on the goal, giving him 400 points in 450 career games.
“Right now for me the wins are the biggest thing,” Staal said when asked about his milestone. “I want to win games, I want to be in the playoffs every year, and obviously right now we’re a little ways out. The points are nice, but every night you want to win games, and it feels better at the end of the night when you have a ‘W’ in your column.”
After taking a 2-0 first-period lead, the Canes held the Islanders to just one shot in the opening 15 minutes and three overall in the second to take a two-goal lead into the final 20 minutes. The three shots by New York tied the fewest in a period by an opponent and came just one game after Carolina surrendered a season-high 22 shots in the second to the Rangers.
“It was the second game of a back-to-back for our team so we needed to make sure we were smart in our own end and I thought we did a pretty good job keeping them to the outside, and when they did penetrate a little Cam made some good saves,” Staal said.
Carolina’s new captain and the team’s power-play remained on fire when Staal pounded in his own rebound midway through the first, giving him eight goals in his last five games and the Canes eight man-advantage goals in their last 18 chances.
Matt Cullen made it 2-0 three minutes later when he picked up a New York turnover along the side boards and fired it past DiPietro.
“Usually with me it comes in bunches, so I try to make sure I take it to the net as much as I can and shoot from every angle,” Staal said of his recent torrid goal streak that reached five straight games. “Right now they are falling so I’ll take them.”
The defensive play of the period belonged to Joni Pitkanen, who broke up a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush that preserved a two-goal lead for the Canes, who have outscored opponents 5-0 in the first period during the team’s recent winning streak.
NOTES: Staal is now tied for eighth in the NHL with nine power-play goals. … Staal’s goal also tied him with Pat Verbeek for third on the franchise’s all-time list with 70. Ron Francis is first with 132. … Cullen has 16 points in his last 16 games. … Carolina has won 9 of the last 13 against the Islanders. … Staal has 12 points in his seven-game point streak. … Whitney also extended his point streak to seven straight with an assist on Jokinen’s goal. … Ward improved to 10-2-1 against the Islanders. … Carolina has allowed one goal six times in its last 13 games --- winning all six. … Cullen has his first game-winner of the season.